We caught up with Dr Heather Bolton to discuss the launch of our new Series, Navigating COVID-19, which was designed to tackle the mental health challenges presented by the pandemic.
So Heather, how did you find writing the Series?
It was an interesting experience for a couple of reasons. I wrote it at a time when I was going through my own process of adjustment, trying to make sense of unfolding events, and dealing with all the uncertainty that came with that. In that sense, writing the Series was a helpful process for me personally and a good reminder of what I should be doing to look after myself and those around me.
Writing the Series was also quite a whirlwind! Usually it takes two or three months to create a Series from initial conceptualisation to release, and it’s quite a slow, steady process with plenty of time for reflection. As a team we really wanted to get this Series live as soon as possible so that we could offer timely support to our users, so we collectively agreed to make it a priority. It’s a product of great teamwork – thanks to our designer creating the graphics at record speed, our voice artist turning around the audios in a single day, and our content lead learning to code(!), we made it work.
What were your key considerations in writing the Series?
I wanted to make sure that the Series had a tangible impact for our users so I built it on evidence-based principles and included lots of practical exercises. There’s so much advice online and, although it’s well-meaning, it’s not always impactful and it can be hard to know what to listen to. It was really important to me that we provided something concrete and trustworthy, as we always do. I was also well-aware that many people are busier than ever at the moment, and juggling far more responsibilities than usual, so made sure it was concise and digestible.
What are the key challenges COVID-19 poses to our mental wellbeing?
We’ll all be affected in different ways, depending on our individual circumstances and the way we interpret what’s happening around us. We all need to go through a process of adjustment as we have to renegotiate our home and work relationships, adapt to new daily routines, and learn to tolerate the uncertainty. This process can generate a lot of worry and anxiety, as well as dampen our mood.
Anyone with existing mental health issues might find it harder to cope than they normally would, especially if their usual supports or coping mechanisms have become harder to connect with. Self-isolation can also mean spending a lot of time “in your own head” and if you have a lot of distressing thoughts or memories, that can be really tough.
We still don’t know how long this situation will go on for so it’s important that we’re all proactive in managing our own mental health as best we can, whether or not we have pre-existing problems. I’d encourage everyone to be kind and compassionate towards themselves, remember there’s no right or wrong way to feel or react, and to reach out for support when you need it. It’s not inevitable that this situation will have a lasting negative impact, and approaching it with a proactive mindset can make a difference.
What will users get out of the Series?
The Series takes people through 7 days (or chapters) of content, covering various topics like managing anxiety, keeping mood level and maintaining a good work/life balance. I really hope that it helps users recognise that there’s no single right or wrong way to be feeling or reacting, and that we’re all adjusting to a new normal. I also hope that it gives people confidence that they can proactively manage their mental health throughout this time, and that feeling bad isn’t inevitable. A theme that runs throughout the Series is taking control of what you can and letting go of what you can’t. Although this can be hard to do, I’m hoping that users can apply this approach in their lives going forward.
You were formerly an NHS clinical lead – how did it feel to give all NHS staff free access the Unmind platform?
I feel very proud to be part of Unmind at the moment – the NHS are doing so much for our society and I’m so glad that we’re in a position to support staff through this time. The NHS is an amazing institution with such a dedicated workforce and it feels like wider society are appreciating this more than ever. We’ve had really positive feedback from NHS staff so far and I’m glad to know we’re making a difference, even if that’s small in comparison to what NHS staff are doing for everyone else.
Are there any reasons to be positive about the whole situation?
I’m sure a lot of people will feel it’s too early to think about positives but over time I think positives will come out. This pandemic brings a lot of opportunity for positive growth and for changing the way we relate to one another. For many, that sense of connection to other people is growing because we’re redefining the way we keep in contact with people we love, we’re cultivating new appreciation for the relationships we have, and we’re feeling part of a bigger societal collective. It can also be an opportunity for individual growth, as there's a lot more time to really get to know ourselves, to re-evaluate where we’re at and where we want to be, and to learn to be in the moment with our own thoughts.