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Gill Hardman, Trainees' Committee Member, discusses the importance of mental health during COVID-19

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21 May 2020

Mental Health Awareness week has undoubtedly taken on extra significance for everyone this year.  The challenges of life during the pandemic; work, home life in lockdown, being kept apart from family and friends and concerns for vulnerable loved ones, have brought issues of mental health and well-being to the fore, like never before.

For surgical trainees, this period has brought with it huge uncertainty, with changes in practice, rotations and cancellation of exams, that have caused great anxiety and sleepless nights for many.  Re-deployment and cross-skilling, to care for COVID patients, has posed an additional mental burden.  Those healthcare workers directly involved in the care of COVID patients have seen, first-hand, the devastating effects of this disease on patients and families, while having to adapt to new ways of working.  That experience will stay with them. As we look to increasing our surgical activity once again, and establishing our new normal, we must acknowledge the impact this period has had on us, and our teams.  Taking care of each other is the only way to ensure we provide safe and sustainable care for our patients. 

Surgical culture is not always well aligned with mental wellbeing, but the effect of burnout, anxiety and sleep disturbance on our ability to care for others should never be underestimated. My ‘epiphany’ came 4 years ago.  In the middle of a demanding training period, a bereavement, balancing work and a part time degree, I needed something to change.  I chose regular counselling sessions, more exercise (swimming and yoga work for me), less red wine, saying ‘no’ at work and ‘yes’ to friends and family a little more often.  These are the habits, techniques and skills I fall back on time and again.  I know they keep me happier in my life and competent in my work.  They have never been more important to me than at this time, during the pandemic, even if catching up with friends is currently virtual and swimming has been replaced by a 1-hour jog around the park (by jog read awkward-paced walk).

Finding what works for you, taking care of your mental and physical health, is an essential part of surgical performance and patient safety that, perhaps, in normal times, we haven’t mentioned quite often enough.  The pandemic has, at least, prompted discussion and recognition of the importance of taking care of mental health and well-being in our lives and in our practice. 


To help you through these challenging times, please visit our wellbeing section here for links to additional mental health resources.

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