The Pandemic: Vulnerable Groups

No surprise, really, that 2020 had one more disappointment – or challenge – for us before it shuffled off into Christmas past. I’m writing this after much of Southern England has gone into the new Tier 4 with only 8 hours notice and only five days before Christmas.

Of course, we will all do what is necessary to keep one another safe, and we are all happy to sacrifice one Christmas for the good of the many. No one is questioning that.


However, as I posted earlier in the year, we might all be on the same stormy sea, but we are definitely not in the same boat; we are all weathering this in very different boats: https://www.instagram.com/p/CHFc8MxBmLu/


In today’s blog, therefore, I wanted to draw attention to some of those more vulnerable groups, and give you some tips on how to support them as we enter the last stages of what has been an unpredictable and surreal year.



Men:


Some of you may have seen an article in The Guardian recently which reported that the suicide rate for men in 2019 was the highest since the millennium, according to The Office of National Statistics. In my own experience of working with men, it’s still important for them to be seen as the ‘provider’ in the family, to have purpose and status, and to be the person who can ‘fix’ something. The expectations men can put upon themselves can make them vulnerable to suicide and self harm in a pandemic, since being made redundant or being put on furlough can evoke feelings of failure. Pile on top of that the fact that, stereotypically, men aren’t brought up to talk about their emotions as much as women are, and you’ve got an individual who becomes ‘locked in’. According to the Samaritans, the unenviable status of having the highest suicide rate goes to men aged between 45 and 49; the very men who would have grown up in the 70s and 80s during a time when gender roles were still very much binary and when their role models were ‘tough’ men.


Walk & talk: men often prefer a more informal situation for talking through any problems they may be facing, as opposed to the more traditional counselling set up. Walk and talk therapy enables the client to walk with a therapist, side by side, in the open air, still providing the confidentiality and privacy central to the counselling experience, but with the added bonus of it feeling less confrontational. For more on walk & talk therapy, have a look at Jonathan Hoban's rather gorgeous website: https://jonathanhoban.com/walking-therapy-training ,or contact Be at Blue Cloud Walking: https://www.facebook.com/BlueCloudWalking/


Normalise: in my experience of working with men in my counselling practice, they often don’t talk about their problems with their male friends as openly as women do with theirs. Two of my male clients have had real breakthroughs when they’ve opened up about their struggles and experiences to their network: one, realising noone in his friendship group or family knew how he felt, decided to reveal to them what was going on. As a result, he was able to connect more deeply with certain people in his network, even meeting up regularly with one male friend who’d been going through something similar and could offer advice. Another chose to share his experience of childhood trauma on social media; as a result, he received messages of support and admiration. Perhaps, what was more key for both of them, was the realisation that they were not alone. No man is an island, so check with your male friends, because, quite often, they are still trying to live up to an out-dated and oppressive idea of what a ‘man’ is.



Teenagers & 20-Somethings:


If I had a time machine, there’s no way ON THIS EARTH I’d use it to go back to my teens or early twenties! It’s normal for our teenage years to be full of angst and stress; after all, it’s when we, naturally, start to gain independence from our parents and caregivers and when our responsibilities and stressors begin to increase. 50% of mental illnesses start to become apparent in adolescence; three quarters by the age of 24. Issues, such as eating disorders, depression, anxiety disorders and substance abuse peak at 14.


You’d have to have been living under a rock not to know that the pandemic has added extra stresses to this year’s younger generations. Our teens are experiencing untold stress from the exam chaos created by school closures; especially since the goalposts are constantly changing as to which set of results will be used as their final grades in 2021. They’ve also been isolated from their usual routines and from their friends, with whom they’d normally be sharing their problems and gaining support.


For twenty-somethings, they are a generation, either, finishing uni in isolation, or starting new jobs in circumstances that mean their co-workers are icons on a screen. For others, it might even mean that their entire career has vanished overnight.


Normalise: if you can recall being a teenager or a twenty-something, then you will recall the drama that naturally came with that age. EVERYTHING feels big. EVERYTHING feels like the end of the world. It’s difficult to have perspective when you’ve only been alive for 728 weeks, and it’s difficult to know what’s normal and what isn’t when everything is new for you. For teens and twenty-somethings, the best thing you can do is to listen without judgement; they already feel awkward about EVERYTHING, so don’t make that embarrassment worse by ridiculing their fashion sense, dismissing their interests and making them feel that their natural desire to experiment is a crime. Share with them some of the stories of when you were young to help them normalise their experience.


Journaling: young people aren’t just learning how to plan for their future career, and reconcile their minds with their bodies (and their hormones), but they are also learning how to cope with a barrage of complex emotions. We’re not born knowing how to handle all the emotions we experience, just like we’re not born knowing how to drive a car. We learn to deal with our emotions by watching our role models dealing with theirs; we learn via what’s modelled to us by our care-givers. Teenagers naturally go underground with their feelings and may stop sharing them with you directly, so it helps to get them into the habit of journaling so they can learn to express, reflect and think through challenging emotional events. As a teenager, I wrote pretty much everything down - as observations, as poems, as ideas for plays and novels - and I'm convinced it helped me to cultivate emotional agility and reduce the possibility of mental illness. I've heard great things about Bullet Journals: https://www.goodhousekeeping.com/life/a25940356/what-is-a-bullet-journal/


Flexibility: flexibility isn’t always something that comes naturally to young people; after all, their security comes from fitting in with their peers rather than from standing out. However, flexibility is a skill that ought to be taught from a young age because it fosters resilience. As Rudyard Kipling wrote in his poem 'If' -, 'If you can meet with Triumph and Disaster; / And treat those two imposters just the same.' If you want to read the full poem, follow the link below; it's a good study in resilience: https://www.poetryfoundation.org/poems/46473/if--- If we can, as Kipling suggests, teach our young people how to experiment, how to brainstorm, how to approach things from different angles, then we teach them how to cope with mistakes and failures as if they were successes.





Front Line Workers:


Imagine what it’s like to read the newspaper headlines in the morning and see the words ‘Covid has made heroes of many of our frontline workers….but not teachers.’ (The Sun) Just, for a moment, imagine how it would feel reading that after being in a classroom all day with thirty potential Covid-carrying kids; imagine how it would feel reading that after you’ve had to completely change the way you teach so your teaching can be done online; imagine what it would feel like reading that when you’re told, on the day you finish for the Christmas holidays, that you’re going to be responsible for organising Covid testing for your school when you get back in January. If your imagination is any good, my guess is you’ll feel like sh*t, which is what a lot of teaching professionals felt like seeing trash such as this written about them day in-day out.


Other front line workers have been graced with kinder headlines, and even some clapping, and, unless you work for Morrisons, they’ve even been given an extra day off over Christmas to thank them for the work they’ve done keeping the country going through the pandemic. Front line workers and other essential workers, really haven’t stopped. Quite often, they are the people who tend not to be professionally motivated by money, but are driven more by the purpose and meaning of the work they do, which means they tend to lack an ‘off’ switch.


Empathy: Never EVER assume you know how to do the job of an essential worker and proceed to tell them. Just because you went to school, own a wheelie bin or had an operation once doesn’t mean you’re an expert on their profession. And, trust me on this one….quoting The Daily Mail is not going to win you any friends here. They love their job; all they want is some respect, so LISTEN. Let them vent, and resist the urge to tell them how you think things should be run.


Burnout: Burnout is nothing new; the word was first coined in the 1970s to describe a state of exhaustion brought on by persistent stress in our work environments as well as in our home lives. Our teachers, carers, small business owners, retail workers and medical personnel have all been under incredible pressure. This page from HelpGuide is a useful ‘go-to’ if you are concerned that yourself, a relative or friend might be experiencing burnout. It tells you which symptoms to look out for and how you can seek help: https://www.helpguide.org/articles/stress/burnout-prevention-and-recovery.htm


Home Workers:


I always planned to work from home; it was always my choice. I enjoy the solitude and flexibility it offers. However, for many workers who’ve been forced to work from home, due to the pandemic, the novelty is wearing off.


Set boundaries: where once the commute would set the boundary between work and play, now the walk between the bedroom and the living room has to suffice. Boundaries are essential to living healthily, whether we are in a pandemic or not. Whilst your home may now be your office, it doesn’t mean that it’s suddenly OK to work late, sit in an inadequate chair, eat lunch over your laptop and do your work in your PJs. In larger homes, it’s easy to dedicate a room as an office; in smaller homes and flats, you’ll need to be creative. I live in a one-bed flat, so all my work stuff gets put into a big bag at the end of the day, at the end of the week and at holidays and put behind the sofa. Out of sight, out of mind! I use the following resource on boundaries with my clients: https://positivepsychology.com/great-self-care-setting-healthy-boundaries/


Chronotypes: OK, not gonna lie; I’m OBSESSED with chronotypes and what you can achieve if you take the time to work out your natural rhythm. In the ‘beforetimes’ our working routine was built around the communal culture of the office; however, working from home can mean that that reassuring routine has melted away, leaving you feeling a little lost amid the newfound flexibility – worse than that, it might have knocked out your usual sleeping and waking patterns. Working out your chronotype is one way you can start to build a rhythm that will be productive. Have a butcher's at this podcast which refers to Dr Michael Bruce's ideas on chronotypes: https://productivitycast.net/054-chronotypes-and-optimal-productivity/


The Furloughed & Recently Redundant:


I think many assume that being furloughed is cushy. From the outside, all people see is their friend or relative being paid to stay at home and ‘do nothing’, but the reality is different. Imagine what it would be like for yourself if the management decided to put you on furlough; what sorts of questions and uncertainties would go through your mind? What would that feel like for you? How much do you think management would tell you as to how they’d come to the decision?


In reality, for some, being furloughed creates a great deal of uncertainty; especially in sectors which have been most hard hit by the pandemic. For bar staff, waiting staff and hospitality staff, they might be wondering if the next news they get is that their establishment is being closed down permanently. Aside from the uncertainty with not knowing what furlough might lead to, being on furlough can knock a person’s self esteem. As with those made redundant, the question that can come to the mind of the furloughed worker is: ‘why me?’ The decision to make them the one to stay at home can be taken very personally.


Empathy: when you’re speaking to someone on furlough, be empathetic. Imagine what it would feel like if it were you and ensure any comments you make and any questions you ask are filtered through this.


Balance: the impulse with friends who’ve been made redundant during the pandemic might be to ask them how the job search is going. Whilst this might feel like being supportive, it might just end up getting on their wick and making them feel pressured. Instead, ask them early on if there’s any way you can support them and gauge your input from that. If you genuinely see a vacancy they might like, then do share it, but don’t then keep asking them if they’ve applied for it.


Routine: our daily routines are often built around the nature of our work and our routines often give us a sense of purpose. If you’ve been recently furloughed or made redundant, or are supporting someone who has, offering to do something regularly with them can help stave off low mood. Setting your alarm for the same time each day, a walk every other day, or elevenses on Zoom can help to punctuate the day and give it meaningful structure.


Re-framing: being away from routine can be as beneficial as being in it. Redundancy (especially ones that come with a pay out) and furlough time can give you time to re-assess your values and priorities. It can also give you time to brush up on old skills or learn something new. It was my college’s offer to its staff for voluntary severance, for example, that first got me thinking of re-training for a new career. If you’re supporting someone on furlough or who is newly redundant, give them time to openly brainstorm new directions for their life; it can be really helpful to have someone off whom to bounce ideas.

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