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Have you ever lost someone you love, faced a life-threatening illness or felt overwhelmed by the competing demands of home, exams or a busy clinical practice? I would imagine all of us have at some point. What makes such times bearable? The support of family and friends and sometimes compassionate colleagues or other professionals can ensure the difference between coping or not.
These connections and the consequent sense of belonging are not only desirable but vital to emotional wellbeing. Yet how many doctors sacrifice that vital element of their life to ensure they meet the needs of others?
Like many care providers I have also been caught up, looking after others and not myself. Knowing the critical importance of self-care I have had to make active decisions to act differently.
It was this experience and understanding of how difficult it can be that inspired my recent involvement with NHS Change day and the pledge, that my organisation, Connecting with People has called ‘U Can Cope’.
It says: ‘I pledge to develop my wellbeing and emotional resilience and encourage those around me to do the same’.
This NHS Change Day pledge encouraged supporters to join me and make commitments to enhance their own wellbeing and to develop better emotional resourcefulness and resilience. An important part of developing this emotional resourcefulness is to invest in strengthening and building connections with others.
Increasing connectedness was a major part of my own pledge through concentrating on quality family time. The difference has been tangible. Six months later my whole family have benefitted from the daily ‘gadget free family time’, exercise and weekly picnics (come rain or shine). I am convinced we are all happier and I am more productive.
As someone whose work is preventing suicide I am acutely aware that connectedness and a sense of belonging are also powerful protective factors against suicide. The International Association for Suicide Prevention has chosen ‘Suicide Prevention: One World Connected’ as this year’s theme.
Studies have shown that social isolation can increase the risk of suicide and that having strong relationships can be protective against it. Research also shows that women have a lower suicide rate to men across the population. Women also tend to be better at being connected. Interestingly, interventions to reduce the social isolation of a group of elderly people reduced the suicide rates in females but not males.
Female doctors have higher suicide rates than women across the population (Hawton 2001) whereas male doctors have lower suicides rates than the general population. The sample in that research is quite small, and more studies are needed, but it’s the best data that we currently have. An increase in connectedness must be part of any solution.
Could it be that demanding clinical roles take precedence over the psychological requirement for connectedness or that the stress of not achieving a work/life balance puts women under more pressure? Whatever the reason the evidence shows that connectedness is vital to everyone.
Reaching out to those who have become disconnected from others and offering them support and friendship may be a life-saving act. This is especially relevant when people are isolated or in distress.
It is for this reason that we are inviting people to join our latest campaign to encourage better connectedness, called #connectingwith. We will be encouraging people to strengthen their connections with others and to forge new ones. We want people to share their photos and stories via social media.
More information about the campaign
Alys Cole-King is a consultant liaison psychiatrist in north Wales, Royal College of Psychiatrists spokesperson for suicide and self-harm, and director and co-founder of Connecting with People, a not-for-profit organisation that provides free online resources. She wrote the blog to mark World Suicide Prevention Day on September 10.
BMA Counselling and the Doctor Advisor Service are available on 0330 123 1245.