On Friday 19th June BYP Chapter Lead Lynn Abhulimen sat down with Marteka Swaby, a psychotherapist and the founder of Benevolent Health, on Instagram live to discuss the impact Covid-19 is having on mental health.
This post summarises the conversation and provides additional notes and links to resources mentioned on the live.
Q: Why did you choose to become a psychotherapist? Did anything influence your path?
I really love people. I enjoy working with people. I first got into this at 20 years old after training as a CBT therapist working in addiction. I felt I was a bit young to be a therapist, I felt people wouldn’t take me seriously. But I genuinely enjoyed sitting with people and helping them work through their problems. I then came away from one to one settings and starting doing work in groups, more of a key worker role. Ten years later I felt like I was an adult so I went back to Birbeck University (http://www.bbk.ac.uk/) and retrained in psychodynamic psychotherapy. And that’s how I got into it.
Putting mental health on a spectrum – on one hand you have mental illness like schizophrenia, bipolar disorder, self-harm - those sorts of things and on the other hand you have stress, anxiety, depression.
1 in 4 people have mental health issues
and when we’re talking about serious mental illness only 2% of the population of affected.
Most of us are in the other end of the spectrum where we can come in and out depending on what’s going on in our lives. Because there is stigma people tend to assume that it’s the serious illness. The stigma around mental illness and mental health are not the same. We all have mental health and I do a lot of work to open up conversations around this.
Q: What are some of the positive and negative behaviours you’re seeing emerge during the coronavirus pandemic?
One of the things I’m having a lot of discussions around is anxiety and fear, particularly around health issues. Sudden change for anyone can be very unsettling. Because there is a lot of uncertainty, that brings fear and it impact people’s behaviours bringing out the negative sides which manifests in different ways.
A lot of people are also experiencing disruption in their sleep patterns. People are working from home, not having to get up at a fixed time, not having to take the kids to school and everything feels out of balance. We’re spending so much time online and it’s a lot more of an effort to communicate when you are not sitting in front the other person so that’s affecting relationships and productivity too.
Q: With the deaths in the US and the acceleration of the BLM movement across the world, the mental health crisis seems to be at an all time high for black people. Over social media people are sharing that they're crying alot, having trouble sleeping, feeling overwhelmed and irritable. How do we protect our mental health in the current climate?
The positive effect of Covid & the Black Lives Matter movement is that actually it’s forcing a kind of social justice movement. People that perhaps wouldn’t be introspective and search for answers inside of them are now forced to with no social activities and more time on their hands.
When things change dramatically it gets people into a space of pondering ‘what’s the focus?’ ‘what are the important things in my life right now?’. It’s pushing things to the surface which is uncomfortable but I think that’s actually a good thing long term. It’s key to create that space and listen to what I would call your inner voice.
To protect your mental health I would recommend doing the following:
- Create space - If you’re feeling anxious about anything, give it a space to think about it and what it really is.
- Sleep is key. Get into a sleep routine.
- Movement – getting outside. Go for a walk everyday in the daylight even if it’s not sunny. That makes a difference to our mental health. We need light as human beings.
- Diet– We’re prone to eat more sugary things now but be mindful about how much unhealthy food and alcohol you are consuming. Excessive sugar and processed food impact our moods. Treat yourselves but be mindful.
- Limit your screentime. If you start your day comparing your life to someone else’s you will always wake up in a deficit. I put my phone in airplane mode so I have a choice when I wake up on when I start that part of my day (messages etc).
If you’re mindful and do those five things you’ll see a difference in just two weeks.
Q: The Disparity Race Audit in 2017 found that black men were more than 10 times as likely to have experienced a psychotic disorder within the past year as white men. There is a growing body of research to suggest that those exposed to racism may be more likely to experience mental health problems such as psychosis and depression.
Do you believe there is a link here?
The challenge with racism is back to the internal and external. Some of the systemic racism creates challenges for the bame community.
From a mental health perspective you’re 8 times more likely to be diagnosed with schizophrenia. If you are a black man you are four times more likely to sectioned under the mental health act. What we need to be aware of with covid is that the coronavirus bill has changed the Mental Health Act rule so now only one doctor signs that off instead of two. So it increases the risk of these vulnerable groups.
Systemic racism impacts how we show up in the world, how we feel we belong, how we relate to people. There is also a system in the way it’s designed, its discriminative.
It’s really hard to be vulnerable and show your vulnerability when you don’t feel like you belong, you don’t feel like you’re understood, you don’t feel valued and I think that impacts your mental health. Some of it is internal (how you feel perceived by the world) and some of it is genuine so how do you approach that? How do you start to change that? It’s forcing a lot of these conversations and creating actual systems to look at these issues.
The next step is thinking about what is the anti racist action that we take to make this different for the next generation. What can be different for our young people that will end up in the mental health system – what will be difference for them?
It’s time to start doing some real work now to make this a legacy and to make a difference.
Q: At what point should you ask for help and how do we encourage more people to do so?
What you see in health population data is men are much more likely to stay in an acute bed for up to 30 days than women. Women go to the GP and access talking therapies and medication. It shows women ask for help earlier.
When I organise summits I make sure they are reflective of the communities we serve. Try to bring in those diverse conversations much earlier. How do we create products and services that appeal to men, to black men, to people that don’t access help earlier? What does that need to look like?
My experience of working with digital products is that it does attract more men, it becomes more anonymous and bypasses a lot of the steps it takes when going via the traditional route through your GP. Both are needed. It’s important to make mental health part of everyday conversations and that was my motivation for starting a podcast. We were speaking to everyday people about their journey and why mental health matters.
That’s how we get it into the narrative – by telling stories about it so people can connect and relate.
Q: You provide expertise mental fitness. How can we improve our mental fitness? What tips can you share?
When we’re taking about mental fitness we’re talking about sleep, relationships, financial wellbeing, nutrition and physical fitness. Those are the basics and building your emotional resilience or what I would call your mental real state.
However you can create space for your soul, I really encourage that. Whether that’s delving in the arts and creativity, religion, spirituality etc. Do things that stimulate your brain. There’s no one size fits all. People need to be aware that their mental health is just as important as their physical health. We need to proactively train our brains. If you look at dementia and other cognitive disorders, one of the treatments is cognitive simulation. It’s quite effective and can be preventative.
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Marteka Swaby is a psychotherapist & the Founder of Benevolent Health. She has over 15 years experience consulting, coaching and mentoring to build resilience & improve emotional wellbeing. Marteka is using both her clinical expertise and digital to deliver a range of online summits and training programmes to increase awareness of mental health.
Connect with Marteka on twitter @MartekaSwaby
Follow BYP Cardiff on IG @BYPCardiff
Written by Lynn Abhulimen.