Mental Health Awareness Week 2020 – George’s story

In the lead up to Mental Health Awareness Week which started on Monday 18th May we spoke to George, a Samaritans listening volunteer, who wanted to share his story and advice.

Having suffered depression himself, George has experienced both sides when it comes to mental health and wellbeing; giving him a good perspective and a great foundation to support others.

George’s story

2001 was a difficult year for me, I’d just started university and was living away from home for the first time. I had also taken the step of coming out to myself and I ended up in a very difficult relationship. I felt alone! Although I hadn’t gone to the doctors and been diagnosed, it was pretty clear that I was depressed.

I don’t know what made me do it, I guess some innate survival instinct, but I made the decision to call Samaritans. Sharing how I felt with someone who I had never met and who didn’t know me really helped. Within half an hour, I’d let everything that was swirling round in my head out; it was the help I desperately needed. I broke up with my boyfriend, got some counselling, and came out to some close friends, who became my rocks.

That initial contact with the charity helped more than most people could ever know. I felt like I wanted to help people the way I had been helped. In 2006, after I’d finished university and started working as a teacher, I joined the Samaritans as a listening volunteer in my spare time. I now work as regional volunteering officer for the North of England, leading on volunteer recruitment and support at local branches.

Looking after your mental health in the coronavirus outbreak

In the current climate you may be feeling more worrisome or unsettled. It might feel like things are changing and that there are a lot of things outside of your control. Feel reassured that it’s natural that this uncertainty and change will affect mental wellbeing. Government guidance to stay at home means that we don't have the social contact that some of us are used to, and in some cases, if living alone or in self-isolation, it will mean that we're cut off from all contact for quite some time.

Although this is difficult for most people, it can exacerbate issues for those with mental health problems, who might have lost their vital support network.

Whether you suffer from a mental illness, or you’re finding this unusual situation tricky, I’d encourage you to talk about it however you can – video messaging, over the phone, texting, or even chatting with a neighbour or friend over the garden fence. It’s important to talk about how you’re feeling with anyone you feel comfortable talking to as this will help you to feel connected.

If you feel like you’d like to talk to someone who doesn’t know you, Samaritans are still available 24/7 over the phone and email.

They also have a webpage dedicated to dealing with mental health during COVID-19, which contains links to other support such as how to cope with social media during this time, or how to help yourself if things get tough.

How to help others who may be struggling

It’s important to remember that lots of people might be struggling. So, what can you do?

  • Look out for signs that someone is struggling, these can include feeling restless and agitated, feeling angry and aggressive, feeling tearful, and being tired or lacking in energy, amongst others. These signs may be difficult to spot when isolating, but having conversations and reaching out may help you spot these easier.
  • Be there and listen to people who are struggling and reach out to those friends who are quiet, especially those who live on their own. Keeping in touch is the best way to help someone cope with how they are feeling.

Remember that when you’re listening, consider the quality of your listening skills and try to engage in ‘active listening’. This is where you not only hear what the person is saying, but you make a conscious effort to concentrate attention and empathise with the speaker without immediately interjecting until they have finished what they need to say. Samaritans have developed an easy way to remember how to be a better active listener, and that is to SHUSH.

  • Show you care. Reacting to what they are saying and give eye contact (again, difficult when isolating, but having a video call rather than a normal call will help with this).
  • Have patience. It can take time to get someone to open up – allow them to get there at their own pace.
  • Use open questions. Closed questions which only require a yes or no answer can close down a conversation. Try to open this up such as “How did that make you feel?” or “what do you wish had happened instead?”
  • Say it back. Reflect on what the person is saying and say it back. This shows them that you have understood.
  • Have courage. Don’t be put off if they can’t talk the first time. Persevere, and when they do talk, don’t be afraid to leave silences.

Samaritans receives over 5 million contacts every year, answered by 20,000 volunteers in 201 branches across the UK and the republic of Ireland. Interested in supporting Samaritans? Find out how to donate or volunteer your time.

How NCFE is supporting mental health

We’ve created a mental health support webpage where we’ve collated a range of resources to support people during this time, as well as our recently published blog Supporting Mental Health Awareness Week – raising awareness, encouraging conversations and showing a little kindness.

We also offer a wide range of short funded qualifications to support those who, like George, want to better understand their own mental health and support others.

In addition to this, we run our Community Time Bank Scheme which is a scheme encouraging staff to take up to 12 hours per year to make a positive difference in their community by contributing to community or charity projects. Although this runs all year round, we’ve extended this during the pandemic to give colleagues more opportunity to support communities and in turn, support their own mental health and that of others around them.

As this year’s Mental Health Awareness Week theme is based around ‘kindness’ we’re also encouraging our colleagues and followers on social media to share their stories of acts of kindness that have lifted their spirits during lock down. Join in the conversation using the hashtag #ShowKindness. Get involved and hear our stories by following us on TwitterLinkedin or Facebook.