Clear need for lifeline mental health support for pandemic’s frontline workers - Fiona Benton

A study recently carried out by Scotland’s mental health charity the Scottish Association for Mental Health (SAMH) has revealed a stark picture of the mental health of some of Scotland’s most important frontline workers.

Fiona Benton, Assistant Director of Delivery and Development at the Scottish Association for Mental Health (SAMH)
Fiona Benton, Assistant Director of Delivery and Development at the Scottish Association for Mental Health (SAMH)

Worryingly, out of those surveyed, 86 per cent of workers from industries including transport, logistics, food manufacturing and supply, health and social care, reported worsening mental health since the start of the pandemic, with the figure as high as 90 per cent among those working in retail.

There’s a clear need for a lifeline of mental health support for those who have supported millions of people over the pandemic; these people could be our carers, supermarket cashiers, nurses, bus drivers or refuse collectors, who have been essential in keeping the country going. Notably, it’s younger people who have been the hardest hit, with the survey finding those between 25-34 to be struggling the most.

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As well as reporting a decline in mental health, the research showed that increased feelings of stress and anxiety is also commonplace, with over three quarters (80 per cent) noting an increase. Among the main barriers preventing frontline workers from accessing support include not feeling like their problems were big enough (45 per cent), waiting times (40 per cent) and being too busy (27 per cent).

It's no surprise that operating at the frontline during a global crisis continues to have a harmful impact on psychological wellbeing. That’s why we have a duty to share the free resources and support available. SAMH has been working in partnership with Glasgow Caledonian University and Living Life to the Full (LLTTF) to address this mental health crisis with the creation of the service Time for You, which offers tailor made support for not just those classed as essential workers, but also those who have been required to continue to work throughout the pandemic to keep the nation running, such as those providing the nation’s supply, logistics, retail and public transport.

This includes direct access to three different levels of support: from online and virtual self-help resources, through to talking 1-1 therapies like Cognitive Behaviour Therapy, with trainee psychologists from Glasgow Caledonian University. With over a third (40 per cent) of survey respondents saying access to talking therapies would benefit them, we need to communicate that this support is available if they need it.

One of the hardest things a person can do is to admit that they need and deserve help, and often people just don’t know where to look. Many people who connect with SAMH are in a really low place and are not sure where to turn – whether that be due to not knowing who to speak to or because they think the problems they are experiencing are not big or important enough to bother others with.

This extends to the workplace too. People can be worried about the stigma of speaking about their mental health at work, particularly if they’ve taken a key role in the pandemic response. This is why fostering a culture of openness and support in the workplace is now more important than ever among the frontline sectors. It’s essential that employers send a clear message that staff wellbeing matters, which is why we’re also encouraging employers to make their employees aware of Time for You.

Wider research** has revealed that the reasons for mental health challenges in frontline workers may differ from the general population. Instances of stress, feelings of isolation and not having a clear structure or a sense of control, may occur more frequently for those in essential services compared to those in other sectors. This makes the tailored support by Time for You all the more important.

Time for You is provided by SAMH, Living Life to the Full and the Glasgow Caledonian University; and funded by Foundation Scotland’s Response, Recovery and Resilience Fund, support by the National Emergencies Trust. For information, visit samh.org.uk/timeforyou.

Fiona Benton, Assistant Director of Delivery and Development at the Scottish Association for Mental Health (SAMH)

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Study carried out by 3Gem on behalf of SAMH between 16-26 July 2021 on 700 adults in Scotland employed in the frontline sector (Health, Social Care, Public Transport, Food and Supply sectors, Retail including Supermarkets).

** Eleonora P. Uphoff et al, Mental health among healthcare workers and other vulnerable groups during the COVID-19 pandemic and other coronavirus outbreaks: A rapid systematic review, PLOS ONE (2021). https://journals.plos.org/plosone/article?id=10.1371/journal.pone.0254821

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