listening

How are you doing today?

I love talking about mental health. What could matter more? This blog is drawn from ideas I have developed (and squirreled) while thinking about well-being at work for a slot I did at the Health at Work Conference in Birmingham last week, and in advance of an NHS Employers webinar on staff well-being yesterday. I used an earlier version of this blog to give my talk, and I warmly thank everyone who contributed. Your questions and comments were wonderful and you will be able to see that i have made some changes because of them.

And what an exciting day yesterday was. Because the Girl Guides Association announced their first mental health badge. It has been developed with the excellent charity Young Minds. It uses theories about emotional literacy and resilience to help young people take care of themselves and help others. If only they had done this 48 years ago was I was a Girl Guide. And wouldn’t it be great if such an approach could be rolled out across all schools and colleges and youth groups? What a brilliant start this would give young people facing the world.

At the conference last week, we heard from companies large and small who are putting employee wellbeing front and centre of their investment strategies. And this isn’t because of any sense of duty or even kindness. They know that it pays. They want to know the best ways to help staff achieve optimum health and how best to work with employees who have physical or mental illnesses to manage their conditions and get back to work quickly and well.

If we consider the NHS as one employer, it is the largest in Europe, many times bigger than even the largest multinationals at that conference. And yet we seem slow to follow suit. I say we…I don’t work for the NHS any more. But having done so over a period of 41 years, I feel deeply concerned for its staff. So I was very grateful to take part in the NHS Employers webinar.

Well-being and resilience are the new buzzwords. They are being used everywhere. I like them. But I also have a few issues with them. If we aren’t careful, well-being strategies can feel as if they place responsibility on the individual. And I see well-being as a partnership between the individual, their employer, their co-workers and anyone else they choose to invite to help them achieve their optimum health.

I like the Maudsley Learning model of mental health very much. It shows a series of steps and explains that we are all on a spectrum of mental wellness. I like the way it removes a sense of us and them.

But there are nonetheless inherent dangers in such models. Unless you have felt the terrifying symptoms of psychosis, clinical depression, an eating disorder or any of the other hundreds of mental illnesses, you might think that mental ill-health is merely an extreme version of the distress that anyone might feel when something bad happens. Using well-intentioned euphemisms like mental distress, intended to reduce stigma, can add to the isolation felt by people who experience mental illness. It’s important to say that most people won’t ever experience mental illness, just as most people won’t ever experience cancer or diabetes.

But 1:4 of us will. And we need skilled help from our employers if we are to go back to work at the right time and give of our best. The last time I was ill, I was lucky that I got the right help. Not everyone does. And that is why I do the work I do now, campaigning to improve things in the NHS and beyond for patients and staff.

I shared two specific insights at NHS Employers webinar. The first is that we separate mental and physical health for laudable reasons but at our peril. Obesity might get more sympathy if it were treated as an eating disorder; the most effective treatments combine diet with psychological support, including CBT techniques. Exercise is known to increase endorphins and improve mental wellbeing as well as physical health. People with serious mental illnesses die on average at least 20 years too soon, mainly because of associated poor physical health. And there is an increasing evidence base that people with chronic physical conditions such as cancer, heart disease and strokes have a greater tendency to experience clinical depression. Which comes first doesn’t really matter.

Employers should, in my view, use this knowledge of the inherent links between mind and body to devise their wellbeing strategies and make this explicit. Bringing the mind and the body back together needs to become the next Big Thing.

And secondly, I am increasingly of the view that people who experience mental illness, who are open about it and learn to live well with it despite the massive challenges it poses, can become even better employees than those who don’t have these experiences. I’m talking about people like many of the friends I have met since I came out about my own depression. Such people show extraordinary resilience, compassion for themselves and others, patience, creativity and highly developed social skills that would be valuable in any workplace. They are truly amazing. I try not to have regrets. But one of mine is that it took me far too long to realise that my experience of mental illness could become an asset, if I let it. So now I’m trying to make up for lost time!

I want to share links to my other blogs that I think might be helpful to anyone thinking about wellbeing at work.

This one is about taking the plunge and talking about your own mental health, perhaps for the first time.

This is my plea to be kinder about obesity, because what we are doing now simply isn’t working.

This is about the things you can say and do to help a friend or colleague who is experiencing mental illness. And the things that really don’t help.

These are my ten commandments for working in mental health

This is a blog in which I thank people who have helped me in my journey of self discovery – still very much a work in progress.

And this is my Letter to You. Which you might want to suggest to someone who you think may be struggling.

Life is hard for most employees these days. Working in the NHS holds particular challenges. Stress at work doesn’t have to make people ill. But it can. Employers can make a difference. And so can co-workers.

Please take a moment to think about your colleagues, especially the ones who are having a tough time, seem a bit quieter than usual or not quite their usual selves. Ask them how they are. And really listen carefully to what they reply.

And if you are one of the 1:4 of us who experience mental illness from time to time, I say this: go us. Because we rock. 😎😎😎

Wishing and Hoping and Blogging and Tweeting

20160303_114307

Bad selfie with 2 lovely Twitter chums @AgencyNurse and @AnnieCoops

Last Thursday, 3 March 2016, I facilitated a couple of seminars at the East Midlands Leadership Academy social media conference. Two days before the seminars, I invited anyone who felt so inclined to help me prepare via Twitter and a blog. I then used an updated version of the blog I had initially written as my audio-visual aid for the seminars. It was my very own small action research social media project.

Thank you to the 450 people who read the original blog, commented on it and/or joined the two seminars. I called the seminars Wishing and Hoping and Blogging and Tweeting, which hopefully gave attendees a hint that I’m no expert and that I take a don’t-wait-for-permission-but-ask-for-forgiveness approach to my own use of social media.

You can see the first blog and the comments on my blogsite directly below this one. Thank you very much indeed to Zoe Bojelian, Liz O’Riordan, Chris Richmond, John Walsh, Phil Jewitt, Annie Cooper, EM, Natasha Usher, Sian Spencer-Little, Lloyd Davies, Linda, Vicki W and Laura Hailes for taking the time to comment on the blog.

I apologise to Fenella Lemonsky, Gill Phillips and anyone else who tried to comment but were stymied by WordPress and/or their own social media platforms. I don’t know how these things work, but I know how annoying it is when they don’t.

I also warmly thank everyone who helped share my requests to get involved or commented themselves via Twitter, including @bipolarblogger @hpiandycowper @davidgilbert45 @AgencyNurse @whoseshoes @jbmccrea @kirsti79 @andrew_davis @noshinakiani @carolinewild @LindsayHobbs51 @HubTube @OrganicLemon @LisaMillerVC @NHSE_PaulT @AlysColeKing @PeterMEnglish @HollowDave @MargoJMilne @endless_psych @JYoolz @QueerAndConcise @ethicConsult @allyC375 @HealthWKTD @ pgtips42 @LearnHospice @alisonleary1 @Lindawr45160138 @Lucy EMLA @LucyMorley1 @JennyTheM @PatientOpinion  @DaniG34 @JOMWLever @emetalic @DanileOyayoyi @MConroy09  @GeorgeTruSATCGirl @AMKane87 @ImtiazGiriach @ElizabethJSays @DebElSayedd @GeorgeJulian @LyndsayShort1 @NickiH @bigronstevenson @wendynicholson @andrewbeee @rosgodson @wendyJNicholson @gremlin2C @mynameisAndyJ @sara_J_Brown @penny_thompson @jackiecassell @claudemmx2 @roz_davies @sweeternigel @nonnazoo74 @garethpresch @anyadei @beckyOT @claudia_writes @spencer_sian  Sincere apologies to anyone I have misspelt or missed out.

Most of all, I want to thank the two sets of participants at the seminars. When I asked them where they were on a scale of 1 = social media virgin – 10 = social media warrior/maven, the lowest score anyone gave was a 4, and I think that person was being overly modest. There were lots of 7s and 8s and quite a few 9s. Given I would put myself at 6.5, it felt rather like a master-class in reverse. Which is the story of my life.

I’ve drawn my personal learning points from all of this into a list below, and included some references for you.

  1. It is possible, and great fun, to crowd-source a seminar, even a podium address in the way I’ve just done. Yes, it takes more time than the usual approach. And it doesn’t finish on the day. It is important to thank people properly who have made the effort to help you. I hope I have paid enough attention to this. The benefits are the potential to engage many times more not only with your direct audience but also with others via social media. And to widen your own learning in ways you could not have imagined.
  2. My personal approach to using social media is how I tend to approach most new things – I jump in and have a go, and work out the rules as I go along. This isn’t the wrong way, but nor is it the right way. It’s just my way. However you choose to get started, putting yourself out there is undoubtedly scary. It is important to take care. If you are in a high profile role and/or a health care practitioner, this very well constructed article by Annie Cooper and Alison Inglehearn is just great. It will help you stay safe.
  3. My session last week was about using social media as an individual who may (or may not) happen to work for an organisation. NHS social media guru Joe McCrea (@jbmccrea on Twitter) gave a fascinating presentation at the same conference about the use of social media by NHS organisations. He is about to publish a seriously interesting report – please do keep an eye out for it on his wesbite.
  4. The mental well-being side of social media can be either overlooked or understated, in my experience. I thank several folk for reminding me to remind others to be aware that social media is only a very small part of the world. It can be a source of solace and support, as I have often found.  But it can also be vicious, mean, self-righteous and damaging. And because people can hide behind anonymity, bad behaviour is invariably worse, goes more unchecked and can be more intrusive than in face-to-face interactions. I wrote this blog about Twitter  last year. I think what I said then still holds true.
  5. Lots of people want to share their ideas by blogging but have yet to get started, and are keen to choose a good blog-site. I can’t recommend any specific sites because I’ve only used WordPress. I do like it, but like all software, it has downsides. I would just remind you that, however much you like the site you have chosen, unless you are paying for it, you and your readers ARE the product. If we want independent writing to thrive, we MUST somehow pay for books, journals, newspapers and maybe even blog-sites. Otherwise it won’t be long before the only things available to read are the ones that carry adverts or are sponsored from a commercial or otherwise partisan perspective.
  6. Quite a few people have pointed out the difference between posting comments on social media sites like Twitter, and blogging. Which is that the former is for swift repartee, and the latter is for more considered thoughts.  I agree. But I would also argue that blogging helps us to work out what we think. And we can use Twitter and other chat sites for this too. After all, there is no point getting involved in conversations if we have already made up our minds about something. Here is a bit more about why I blog.
  7. This slide deck on the role of social media in health is from my extraordinary friend Dr Helen Bevan (@HelenBevan on Twitter – if you don’t know who to follow, follow Helen). Helen is a genius in new ways of thinking, including social media. She presented this at a social media get-together event at the beginning of last week. I’m sad I couldn’t go, because it looked highly informative and fun.

Finally, I thank Annie Cooper for sharing this lovely video poem about the social media imprint we leave behind us. Like all good things on social media, I promise it will make you think really hard. Which is the best sort of thinking.

Please join my social media experiment

I haven’t done a blog like this before. I’m trying what I hope will be a relatively simple experiment to help me run some seminars on Thursday 3 March 2016 for the East Midlands NHS Leadership Academy.

And you can help me!

  • If you read the blog before Thursday, I would love to have your comments at the bottom of this blog to help me help the people in the seminar groups think about the use of social media in the NHS.
  • And if you read it afterwards, you can help me to think about it some more. Comments would be really welcome from seminar participants and others. Because like all of you, I am a lifelong learner.
  • I intend to use this blog as my main audio-visual aid for the seminars. It is therefore shorter than usual and presented mainly as
    • Bullet points!
  • As well as seeking your comments in bold, I will be encouraging comments and discussion from the attendees.
  • I plan to start by asking people where they are on scale of 1 – 10
    • 1 = a social media virgin
    • And 10 = social media savvy warrior
    • I am pitching the seminars and the blog towards the people who place themselves towards the lower end of this scale, but I will try to engage the more informed attendees by inviting their comments, as I am inviting yours.
  • How does that sound to you?
  • I will then introduce social media as a form of media where the control lies with the individual.
  • I will illustrate my point with a newspaper story that ran about me recently (two blogs down from this one if you haven’t heard about it) and how I was able to redress the balance myself via Twitter, Facebook and my blog.
  • Is the above example too self-indulgent, do you think? And if it is, can you think of a better one?

I will then list the different forms of social media thus:

Social media products:

  • Facebook: An early product. I use it to stay in touch with family + friends. But people use it very successfully for work, even instead of a website
  • Instagram – good for sharing photos, I am told.
  • Linked-In: For keeping in touch with people at work, finding jobs, making connections. Again an early product. I don’t like the interface. But I’ve missed some important messages from people who have tried to contact me that way, so be warned!
  • Skype: Free video calls. Can be erratic. But great for interviews or meetings with people far away. Much cheaper than video conferencing
  • Twitter: Admission time – my favourite. I love the discipline of the character limit.
  • Viber: Similar to WhatsApp. Also free calls
  • YouTube: used by President Obama, Justin Beiber and me!

  • WhatsApp: Great for staying in touch with individuals and groups. And free phone calls!

Does that sound overwhelming? Any glaring omissions? And does expressing my preferences help or hinder?

Benefits of using any/all of the above:

  • Control
  • Thrift
  • Contacts and connections
  • Equality

Things to look out for:

  • No such thing as a free lunch – you are the product for the companies providing these “free” services
  • Warning: social media can be addictive
  • Loss of privacy with some formats (see my blog On Forgiveness)
  • Trolls and other monsters (see my blog Please Take Care, Twitter can be Cruel)

Again, your thoughts please?

Blogging

  • Why do it? (see my blog called Why do you Blog?)
  • And why not do it? (hint: there are lots of good reasons)

This is where I hope we will have the richest discussion.

I’d really welcome your comments here too please.

Some NHS-inspired bloggers that I think are worth following:

  • Zoe Bojelian Wonderful mother of a brilliant boy who we will never forget
  • Annie Cooper Senior nurse + social media genius – she will be at the conference
  • Andy Cowper The most original writer on health policy I know. Also v funny
  • David Gilbert Writes in a brilliant, challenging way about patient leadership
  • Paul Jenkins Ex CE of Rethink, now runs a mental health trust. Deep thinker
  • Liz O’Riordan A breast surgeon with breast cancer. Stunning
  • Charlotte Walker A mental health patient (like me). Writes in real time. Gutty, startling insights
  • John Walsh My personal compassion guru
  • Rob Webster A brave, wise leader who shares generously

The list is of course not exhaustive, but I’d love your thoughts – who would you add?

My plan is to share this blog via the seminars, including all comments received, to stimulate discussion. And I will invite those who take longer to decide what they want to say, to add their comments after the event.

My final question to readers of the blog is this:

  • Would you find a seminar structured in this way useful?
  • And if not, and I really want your honest answers, please tell me how you would improve it.

I promise to incorporate your ideas. And I will also let you know how it goes.

Thank you very much indeed for joining my social media experiment!

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Cock-up or conspiracy?

Blogging can be addictive. I try to limit myself to one a week. But after the Secretary of State announced yesterday that a pay “settlement” will now be imposed on junior doctors, given that extended negotiations have so far failed to reach a conclusion satisfactory to all parties, I feel I have something to say.

I know many junior doctors, including the daughters and sons of friends plus those I meet directly through ongoing contact with the NHS. These young people, who hold other people’s lives in their hands on a daily basis, are sensible, bright, compassionate, committed and driven. I don’t understand how a Secretary of State who was brought in to settle down the NHS after the mess the previous one created can have allowed himself to get into an intractable dispute with so popular and articulate a group of NHS staff.

But nor do I buy into conspiracy theories about privatisation by stealth; there would be better ways to achieve this than by alienating an essential section of the workforce. It is far more likely to be a cock-up. Someone probably advised him that the existing contract was, as most senior NHS managers including senior doctors know, overly complicated and no longer fit for purpose. (If indeed it ever was. This is not the fault of the junior doctors, by the way.)

And so he decided to immortalise his legacy as a moderniser by spearheading the introduction of a new contract. But because he isn’t a manager himself, he set out without understanding that the only way to change the contracts of any group of public sector staff, especially doctors who have possibly the most effective union in the country to negotiate for them, is to improve on their current terms and conditions. There is nothing that upsets people more than attempts to introduce changes that significantly worsen their position. And at the heart of the dispute is the fact that for everyone else in the NHS, Saturdays are not part of the core working week. And although there is little choice for the majority but to work on at least some Saturdays, doing so incurs additional payment. (That people in shops and restaurants don’t get paid extra for working on Saturdays these days is of no relevance.)

The Secretary of State also fell into a communications trap by talking about a 7-day NHS, when the group he was targeting already work shifts across 7 days. He chose the wrong example. To get a true 7-day service, he needs to persuade all other NHS staff who don’t already do so to work shifts over 7 days. And to find considerably more of them because spreading 5 across 7 just makes a thinner spread. And that would cost a great deal of money, which he doesn’t have.

What I know from my junior doctor friends is just how difficult it is to get onto a training programme that takes account of personal circumstances. These young people are already in their mid – late 20s. They have slogged away for 10 years plus to get to where they are now. Only the most elite get the pick of training jobs in university teaching trusts; everyone else is bundled around the country with little choice on short placements that have to be filled, because they are the medical workhorses of our NHS. This plays havoc with personal relationships and family life. So they are not a group for whom losing what little control they had over their Saturdays was ever likely to go down well.

With all this in mind, chief executives of trusts work to a bottom line, which is to deliver safe services within the money available. And 20 of them have found themselves in an invidious position.  These 20 were asked whether the latest offer being made was, in their opinion given the circumstances, fair and reasonable. Having replied in most cases that on balance, they felt that it was, they found their names being included in a letter from the chief negotiator to the Secretary of State in support of something about which they had not been asked, ie an imposed settlement. For the sake of the point I want to make next, it doesn’t matter whether this was a cock-up or conspiracy. (I suspect cock-up, because they are far more common. And we humans make mistakes.) The letter caused a massive flurry on social media. And these people had to decide whether to keep quiet, incurring the wrath of their own junior medical staff and others who support the doctors, or come out and say that they had not agreed to the imposition, potentially putting their own careers at risk. That the majority did the latter fills my heart with hope for the NHS.

And my key point is this. To be a leader in today’s challenging NHS, there are seldom going to be obvious right answers. You will frequently be faced with dilemmas of this nature. If you don’t have the nous to work out when to put your head above the parapet and when to stay quiet, plus the courage to do the former at the very time it seems most lethal to do so, you haven’t got what it takes.

In other news, the Head of Google, Europe told the Public Accounts Committee yesterday that he couldn’t remember how much his own remuneration package was. Either he really couldn’t, in which case he is an idiot and has no right to be in charge of anything. Or he dissembled because he knew it to be a sum of many millions, embarrassing with Google under fire for paying so little corporation tax. Chief Executives of trusts have their salaries published every year and get pilloried for it in newspapers like the Daily Mail. And they all know exactly how much they earn, which is a tiny fraction of the forgetful man from Google. And yet each carries many times more responsibility than he would have a clue how to handle.

My worry is that there is a scarcity of people with the right attributes and courage to do these NHS leadership jobs. And we really, really need them. As we do our wonderful junior doctors.

How do you feel today?

IMG_go72yj

They say you should do something scary every day. I’m not sure. Although I do know that I need the occasional exhilaration of putting myself in an uncomfortable position and overcoming my nerves to make me feel fully alive. Such opportunities came along a bit too frequently when I was a chief executive. But these days I probably don’t scare myself often enough.

Today is the annual Time To Change #TimeToTalk day. Last night, the choir I recently joined held an open mike session. And I decided to terrify myself at the last minute by offering to do a turn.

Although I can follow a tune and love to sing, I am not like the other wonderful acts that got up and entertained us. I have no special musical talent. But I can talk about stuff.

So I found myself standing there and explaining to a packed pub why I had decided to join the choir. Which is that singing with other people is really good for me. Since school choir days, I have yearned to sing again in a choir. I am full of wonder at being part of something greater than myself. I love having to concentrate really hard in order to follow the music. It moves me when a piece we have faltered over suddenly comes together in glorious harmony. Singing with others of a much higher standard helps me to raise my own game. It feels visceral yet sublime.

And I told them about my history of anxiety and depression, and the impact it has had on me, off and on, over 45 years since I was 15. I talked about stigma, including self stigma. And I told them them that I knew I wasn’t alone, because at least 1:4 people in that pub were like me, possibly more. I told about the research of the positive impact of singing on mental well-being.

And then I asked them to join me and celebrate Time to Talk Day by talking to someone else about mental health.

How did it go? Well, I was nervous of course. But they were lovely. I got clapped and cheered. There were a few tears. And some lovely conversations later. I shouldn’t really have expected anything else. The choir is amazing and our conductor MJ is not only a multi-talented musician. She is also an inspiring, compassionate leader. She gets the best from all of us, as singers but also humans.

If you have experienced mental illness but feel shy about telling people in case they judge you, maybe you could do something scary today? Please think about taking the plunge and talking to someone about it, what you do to cope but also how it is only one thing about you. Talk to a colleague, a friend or just someone you happen to bump into. Use Time to Talk Day as your excuse. And ask them about their own mental health. Listen really carefully to what they say. I think you will be pleasantly surprised by your conversation.

And how do I feel today? I think you can probably guess :):):)

Hello, my name is Lisa

We all have days that are hard. When what we need to do seems insurmountable, when we wonder whether anyone knows or cares about our efforts, and when we question our own plans, motivations and abilities.

As a writer and mental health campaigner who experiences depression from time to time, such days come along not infrequently. They also go away again, but only if I find ways to work through the negative feelings that beset me. To keep on keeping on, as Bob Dylan called it.

To do this, I deploy various methods. One of my favourites is to summon someone I admire, and imagine them watching me. Or I ask myself what they might do if they were in my position. It doesn’t make depression go away, of course, but it helps me face up to the difficult stuff.

It is a great honour to have met one of the people who, without knowing it, helps me on occasions to get over myself. And to have done so back in June 2014 when she spoke at the NHS Confederation Conference about the campaign she started which snowballed into the social movement Hello My Name Is.

I am of course talking about the indomitable, courageous and wise Dr Kate Granger, who has terminal cancer and yet as well as Hello My Name Is has managed to complete her medical training to become a consultant physician, get an MBE, bake amazing cakes, play the flute and tick off more things from her bucket list than most of us manage in many years longer than she knows she probably has.

In a tweet earlier this week to Kate’s husband Chris Pointon, who I haven’t met but I know must be a wonderful man because Kate wouldn’t have married anyone who wasn’t, I said I would write about why Hello My Name Is immediately struck a chord with me. This is it.

In my old life as an NHS mental health trust chief executive, I grew to learn that values mattered many times more than strategy. And that these needed to be simply stated, oft repeated and regularly practised by me and all our staff. We had five.

  • We welcome you – because first impressions really matter
  • We hear you – listening really carefully
  • We are helpful – being pro-active, flexible, creative
  • We work with you – sticking with people through the difficult times
  • We are hopeful – being optimistic for people – staff and patients – and our services

I love these values. You can find out how we developed them when eventually you read the book I have almost finished (hint). For now, I’d just ask that you notice the first one, We welcome you. It links closely with Hello My Name Is. And with name badges.

Name badges really matter in mental health and related services. Because patients can be confused or experience hallucinations. Because services can be scary, for real or imagined reasons. And because no-one wears a uniform so you really can’t tell who is who. And you need to know.

So when I first became CE, the executive team agreed that we would always wear badges and that all our staff would always wear badges, as these would help us to introduce ourselves to each other and to patients. And then however stressed or forgetful someone was and however many people they met, they would always know who the other person was.

During my time as a CE, for the most part, people wore their badges with pride. But not always. You’ll have to wait for my book to hear some of the excuses I came across during 13 years on why staff, including extremely senior ones, were not wearing a name badge. And why I take ultimate responsibility for this.

But what I will tell you is how, back in early 2014 when Hello My Name Is was beginning to gain traction,  I wrote about it in my weekly blog, and asked our people to think about incorporating it as part of We Welcome You. And I got some really nice responses. But also one or two dusty ones. Including from one senior person who said that they were deeply insulted that I was suggesting such a thing, because of course they always introduced themselves to their patients and didn’t I have something more important to write about. This wasn’t the same person who had previously told me that they didn’t need a name badge because everyone knew who they were and anyway they didn’t work in Tesco. But it could have been.

I believe that people like this are, at heart, good and caring and that they are not untypical in any part of the NHS. But they have some way to go to understand that the Hello My Name Is campaign is about seeing the patient and not just their disease, and about bringing your whole compassionate self to work, rather than just your intellectual self.

Kate, your inspirational campaign is still very much needed. It will remain topical and relevant for many years to come. You have set a standard for how we work together to which we can all aspire. You are a shining beacon whose work will live on long after we are all gone.

Hullo, my name is Lisa. Thank you for inspiring me on my difficult days to keep on keeping on.

January can be a wicked month

Whether you call it Seasonal Affective Disorder, the winter blues, even depression, January can be a wicked month for those of us who have problems maintaining our mood. The combination of miserable weather, not enough light, post-holiday flatness and getting back on the treadmill can feel pretty grim.

So what to do? Reading breezy articles in lifestyle magazines might lead you to believe that the answers to your woes lie in spending money you almost certainly don’t have on new clothes, visits to spas, holidays or even a home makeover.

Such advice can make people like us feel even worse. As can admonishments to start a new you via a radical change to your diet, new hobbies or an unrealistic exercise regime. When we are feeling low, stuff like this plays into the isolation and hopelessness that already beset us. We know we probably should do these things, but we can’t because we believe we are hateful and lazy and useless and undeserving and anyway, there isn’t any point because nothing will ever get any better.

From my somewhat extensive experience of Januaries past, I offer an alternative list, proven, on the occasions when I have actually taken my own advice, to work.

  1. Stop being mean to and about yourself. You deserve kindness. Start thinking of yourself in a kinder way. When you find yourself putting yourself down and focusing on your deficits, turn this on its head and make a list of your assets instead. Practice being proud of who you are.
  2. Walk places, if possible every day. Walking is proven to lift our mood. It releases endorphins. And it’s free. The first ten minutes may be hard going but after that it will feel a bit easier. The rhythm of walking is soothing. It strengthens the heartbeat. And even if you find meditation impossible in the more usual way, walking will help calm any troubling thoughts.
  3. Tidy something small. Start by making your bed. Do the washing up. Put out some rubbish. Creating order in our surroundings helps to us to create order in our minds.
  4. Whatever you are doing today, do it to the best of your ability. Even if it something you hate, like cleaning or filling in forms. And at the end of the task, take pride in what you have achieved. Tell yourself you did well. And remember to praise yourself not for the outcome, but for the effort you put in to achieving it.
  5. Force yourself to talk to someone else. It may feel easier to hide away, but this is statistically proven to make things worse. Humans need contact with other humans. Parties and large groups can feel overwhelming unless you are at your best. Instead, arrange to have a cup of tea with a friend. Or pop round to see a neighbour. Ask how they are. And when they ask you, answer them honestly. If you are really isolated, think seriously about calling a helpline.

If you are feeling desperate, please, please seek help. Try this wonderful app created by Grassroots, a charity I am deeply grateful to be associated with as a trustee. Or call Samaritans,  who are there 24/7 to listen, without judging. They really can help. I know, as I’ve tried them myself in the past.

January can be a horrid month for many of us. But we can get through, if we are kind to ourselves and reach out.

Because, as the advert says, we’re worth it.