A sense of power and helpfulness

It’s a common situation with medics I think; we often subconsciously consider ourselves immune to the conditions we deal with.

For me, things started to change in July 2020 when I became one of the first people to volunteer for the AstraZeneca vaccine trial. It was a turning point for me. Most of the hard work was done by the intensive care unit, and as a non-intensive care person, I felt like my friends and family thought that I was doing a lot more than I was. I did what I could medically, but my ability to make a difference day to day was fairly limited. 

I did my online training to become a vaccinator. From the moment I was trained, I spent 12 hours a day everyday vaccinating my colleagues. On the first day, I wept tears of joy at how consequential it felt, and how meaningful it was. That was when my helplessness was replaced by a sense of power and helpfulness, and feeling like I was able to make a huge difference. I became a top vaccinator and threw myself into it. It was always clear to me that the vaccines were going to be the way out of the pandemic. For me, it represented humanity taking a stand and fighting back. The NHS found out last week that the vaccination program saved 20 million lives worldwide. Now, I wear this t-shirt to cycle to work. I feel proud to have been involved. Being involved in that program was a mental health life saver for me. To be able to be a part of the thing that really broke the back of the virus was hugely impactful. 

I’ve been fortunate to have good mental health throughout my life. But during the pandemic, around July 2020, I started noticing that I had problems sleeping, and spoke to a colleague about it. We were both generally more anxious. Although both my colleague and I deal with patients with Huntington disease, it took us a while to diagnose ourselves with general anxiety disorder. It’s a common situation with medics I think; we often subconsciously consider ourselves immune to the conditions we deal with. But we’re not. And many of us, during the pandemic especially, had huge anxiety outbursts. Our work changed in so many ways during the pandemic. I was looking after covid patients sometimes, but for many of us, the feeling of powerlessness contributed to finding out that our mental health was stretched to its limit. 

The early days of the pandemic were the first time I truly reflected on my own mental health. I felt like everyone was so busy and I shouldn’t be bothering my GP with things such as not being able to sleep. My colleagues and I were less inclined to seek help for mental health issues for this reason. But there was a lot of peer support. The NHS put in place support and counseling services. For me, seeking help only went as far as talking to colleagues, and acknowledging that we weren’t doing great. But I think that I’m a much more mindful person now. I went from never being aware of a problem with my mental health to someone who has been aware of a problem. I’m now much more inclined to intervene actively to make sure that I stay okay.

I’m a professor of neurology at UCL and a consultant neurologist in London. My work mainly focuses on patients with Huntington disease. I look after patients clinically and conduct research on the disease. My patients would suffer from a combination of depression, anxiety, behavioral changes, personality changes, obsession, compulsions, and risks of self-harm and suicide. The mental aspect is a big part of the disease. There are a lot of overlaps between my work and the field of neuropsychiatry. The brain is where the mind lives, so it’s not really surprising. Huntington disease is an example of a disease that is always both physical and mental. 

As I said, my mental health has always been good, and it has always been something that I’ve been able to rely on. My work is high intensity, but I’ve always been able to take on the stress and workload without an issue. The pandemic was the first time that I started questioning that. It is very important to take care of the mental health of your healthcare workforce. If you don’t, there will be a cascade effect where other people’s health will suffer. 

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