The Devon doctors on the mental health crisis frontline

Three Devon doctors working within mental health have shared their top tips for dealing with low mood and anxiety during the pandemic.

Dr Nicholas Sawers, Dr James Roach and Dr Micheal Billingsley are part of the Psychiatry team at Torbay Hospital, where they support patients on the wards as well as within the wider community.

They want to highlight the importance of people (including keyworkers like themselves) paying extra attention to their mental health during this particularly trying time and share a personal hobby that they’ve found particularly helpful – although it’s not for the faint-hearted.

Left to right: Dr Nick Sawers, Dr James Roach, Dr Michael Mcgovern, Dr Michael Billingsley
(Image: Pilar pastor)

Dr Sawers, 32, said: “Over the last four months or so, I’ve definitely seen people really struggling. When Covid hit, we were kind of thinking it was all going to happen really quickly and all mental health stuff was going to come out, but I think it’s all come to the fore.

“It’s been a good three or four months of things kind of bubbling, people being very lonely, people being isolated not being able to access community networks and support networks, and that’s really come to the fore I think.”

Dr Roach, 32, has also noticed how isolated many people are feeling but said that for some, isolation was already a part of their daily lives. He said: “One patient said to me “welcome to my world” when referring to life in lockdown. One of the recurring themes in the patients I speak to is isolation. That can be not feeling part of something, feeling cut off from other people, or not being able to leave your home.

“These conditions have been forced on us all at times this year and give an insight into what it is like living with a condition like depression, anxiety, or schizophrenia, which -at their worst – can severely limit our ability to relate to others.

“I have found that the sense of community and support that a small group of friends in the bay has given has been the most important thing that has maintained my wellbeing throughout lockdown.”

But isolation isn’t just taking its toll on the mental health of patients. Dr Billingsley, 31, said that the need for connection is also impacting keyworkers at the moment too. He said: “We are social creatures, we need that complex web of people around us to look after us, and that’s something that kind of broke down.

“There’s quite a lot of keyworkers that are going in who we’re not asking how they’re getting on, and we’re not asking how they’re doing, we’re just expecting them to continue with their role.”

The doctors share a home, something they said has helped them greatly during the pandemic. Dr Billingsley said: “We’ve had that unification of being able to lean on each other, and I think that’s been totally invaluable.

“You can’t put a price on how worth it is to speak to your friends, open up about how you’re feeling. I think keyworkers are probably having more of a difficult time then we’re realising because they are both socially isolated and expecting to continue with their day to day tasks.”

But aside from their strong personal bonds, the doctors have found another way to help their wellbeing during the pandemic. They have taken up cold-water swimming, something that wouldn’t necessarily be everybody’s first choice of therapeutic activity, but one that they wholeheartedly recommend – if you can get over the initial shock.

The doctors brave the icy waters
(Image: Pilar pastor)

Dr Roach said: “We are blessed to live in a beautiful part of the world, with the bay on one side, and the moor on the other. My biggest fear going into lockdown was losing the connection with nature that makes life in Devon such a joy and is for me a fundamental part of my wellbeing.

“Fortunately, daily outings for exercise were not only permitted in lockdown, but have been a staple of this year for me, and the best way of engaging with nature on a regular basis. From the endorphin explosion of a cold swim in the River Dart in February to the bliss of floating around in Churston cove on a summer afternoon, getting in the water always has a positive impact on my mental state.”

Dr Sawers said he remembers the “pain on my cheeks” the first time he attempted a cold water dip, but that it is now “one of the most beautiful things” to experience, especially during sunrise. He added: “It’s been a real saviour for us during the pandemic to keep our head above water.”

But before you grab your trunks and take a dip, the doctors want to stress that cold-water swimming has a few safety considerations.

Dr Billingsley said: ” If you’re going into freezing cold water, make sure you’re doing it close to the shoreline, maybe with a couple of people beside you.

“You will feel immediately out of breath when you get into cold water but take some long, slow, deep breaths, and there are lots of videos on how to do cold-water swimming safely.”

The doctors report feeling much better after a cold water swim, and there may even be a scientific argument for giving it a try. Dr Sawers said “There’s some fantastic research getting done by Brighton and Sussex University about cold water therapy” including the idea that getting the body adapted to high-stress environments, (safely) may transfer over to assist with other daily challenges, such as relationships problems or stresses at work.

But what tips do the doctors have if you’re struggling and don’t feel ready to brave the icy waters?

Dr Billingsley said: “The first one I always give is to reach out to people if you’re feeling like your suffering. We found that in this time, there’s Zoom, there’s Google Hangouts, there’s Whatsapp – spread your web as wide as you can. Talk to people and ask if they’re feeling the same way.”

He also suggests embracing creativity, finding a hobby that helps to manage stress and anxiety, even if this means returning to an old pastime. He added: “While it feels like a chance for disengaging from the negatives, there has to be a bit of a cognitive shift on to ‘what are some of the things that I can do.”‘

Dr Roach said he finds meditation to be beneficial and Dr Billingsley seconds this, he said: “There are so many apps you can use for mindfulness and meditation. Headspace is a great tool you can turn to, and there’s online CBT [cognitive behavioural therapy] there’s Calm to manage your anxious thoughts.”

But what the doctors really wanted to stress, is that if these suggestions don’t help and you’re suffering, reach out.

Dr Billingsley said: “If you are feeling suicidal, call your GP or call The Samaritans – I can’t stress that enough. Loads of people who have low mood already are being hit the hardest by Covid. Reach out”

If you are struggling with your mental health, free support is available from The Samaritans any time by calling: 116 123. You can also visit their website here.

Devon Live – Devon News