Lisa Molloy, IACP: There is a need for significant investment in mental health services to help address the psychological toll of Covid-19

In order to help employees talk about their mental health, leaders have to create a safe culture and a safe environment, where people feel comfortable disclosing any mental health problems says Lisa Molloy, CEO of the Irish Association for Counselling and Psychotherapy (IACP). The Association is an Irish-based charity that acts as a link between mental health professionals and people seeking counselling or psychotherapy. It ensures that people receive the best help possible by promoting best practices in mental health services.

Prior to the pandemic, 3% of IACP’s members were working mostly online – this changed to 70% during the pandemic, according to a survey done by the organisation. The effects of working from home on people’s mental health are vast and unfortunately not always positive, which is why employees should feel able to openly talk about their mental health struggles. In this exclusive interview, Lisa Molloy discusses strategies that will help people, no matter their jobs, look after their mental health and wellbeing. She also shares her thoughts on the impact COVID-19 has had on mental health services and how professionals working in the industry will have to adapt to continue providing their much-needed services.

What have been some of the challenges during the pandemic when it comes to taking care of one’s mental health? How can one overcome these challenges?

Lisa Molloy: There are multiple challenges associated with the pandemic and taking care of one’s mental health during such an uncertain and worrying time.

What comes to my mind in response to the question about how one can overcome these challenges are the wise words of Brendan O’Shaughnessy, MIACP, “If you are feeling anxious, it is a normal reaction to an abnormal situation”. Brendan also advises to remember that “You have had difficult times in the past and gotten through them, you will get through this too.” It is important to be kind to ourselves during this time and even though it may not feel like it right now, try to remember the adage “This too shall pass.”

What have been some of the professional challenges of leading the IACP through the lockdown period? How have you overcome these challenges and what advice do you have for leaders on how they can efficiently navigate this crisis?

Lisa Molloy: The IACP, no more than any other organization has had to deal with many challenges, the main challenge being a rapid move to remote working where traditionally our work was office-based. This affected not only our staff but also our board of directors, multiple committees and our members.

There are several ways in which leaders can meet the challenges of the pandemic and I have highlighted some key things to keep in mind here:

  • Remain calm – Your organisation looks to you for reassurance, advice and direction. In times of uncertainty, you need to remain calm and focused. You need to be the steady hand that guides the ship through troubled waters.
  • Communicate – It’s important to have clear lines of communication, especially when managing teams working remotely. Everyone in the team needs to be on the same page and feel connected.
  • Truth – As a leader, you should always speak the truth, even though it may not be what everyone wants to hear. Following on from the importance of communication you can strengthen the trust that you have built over time with your team by delivering the most accurate and honest information you can.
  • Empathy – Be prepared for the fact that a range of emotions may surface for you and for others. You cannot underestimate the effect of this pandemic on people’s mental wellbeing. What people are feeling is very real to them and you need to understand and empathise with that.
  • You are not alone – Remember you are not alone, draw support from the people around you. In difficult times like these, you will benefit from the strength of the team you have invested time and energy building.

How has the pandemic affected mental health services? What do you think are some of the biggest challenges the mental health sector will face post-pandemic?

Lisa Molloy: Countries throughout the world are struggling to come to terms with the mental-health impact of changing work circumstances, financial insecurity, isolation, bereavement, prolonged uncertainty, and resulting anxiety and trauma caused by the COVID-19 outbreak.

In Ireland, counsellors and psychotherapists are playing a vital role on the frontline of this pandemic, supporting vulnerable people including medical staff and other key frontline workers who are struggling with the psychological distress caused by the impact of this virus. We have had a welcome acknowledgement from the government on the need for urgent therapeutic support, however, the challenge is translating that into a longer-term solution. There were already significant gaps in mental health support prior to this pandemic and in the long run, the need for ongoing counselling, psychotherapy and other forms of mental health support will continue to grow. There needs to be significant investment in these essential services to help address the psychological toll that Covid-19 has and will continue to have on the nation.

What does the ‘new normal’ look like for therapists? How will they have to adapt their practices to be able to offer their clients the same quality services as before?

Lisa Molloy: We were very keen to engage with our members to find out the answers to these very questions. We recently carried out a survey among our members in order to gauge their experiences with practising their work during the COVID-19 pandemic. We also wanted to understand the impact the pandemic and associated governmental restrictions is having on them and their work.  Over 20% of our members completed the survey in July, a very strong response rate ensuring robust results.

Some of our key findings are:

  • Almost all of our members (95%) say their work has been impacted in some way.
  • Prior to the pandemic, 3% of our members were working mostly online – this changed to 70% during the pandemic.
  • 45% of our members have now returned to face to face work.
  • 3 in 10 clients are often raising issues specifically related to Covid-19.

Our research captures key insights into the various impacts of the Covid-19 pandemic on IACP counsellors/psychotherapists and their work. Adaptability has been a key feature that has shone through in these results and most counsellors and psychotherapists continued their work albeit online. The challenges of the pandemic and associated governmental restrictions have been met head-on by members and amongst the considerable challenges experienced, there has also been room for opportunity.

Long-term isolation as a result of a pandemic is associated with serious mental health issues such as PTSD, anxiety, depression and insomnia. Are people working exclusively from home at a higher risk of developing these issues? What are some practical steps people working remotely can take to protect their mental wellbeing?

Lisa Molloy: There is a lot of research to suggest that drawing lines between our professional and personal lives is essential, especially to maintain good mental health. However, this can prove difficult when work circumstances have changed so radically and so quickly. Here are a few practical tips that can help in protecting your mental health and wellbeing while working remotely:

  • Routine – Start and end the day with a routine. This helps to give you a sense of normality and keeps you focused for the day ahead.
  • Set boundaries – Make sure you stick to your work schedule and don’t end up working longer and harder. If you save time on your commute, don’t use that time working. You may typically read, listen to some music or some podcasts or catch up with family or friends over a call and you should continue that practice.
  • Work environment – You may not have the perfect workplace or equipment but the important thing is to find a space away from the main home area if possible. Also, if you can, move your desktop to a place that has plenty of sunlight. Find places in your home where you can move around during the day so you can leave your desk to take a phone call.
  • Regular breaks and exercise – Don’t forget to get up from your desk and stretch, go outside for some fresh air, go up and down the stairs, anything to move your body. Taking breaks is good for your mental health and it also means that your eyes are getting a break from focusing on a screen for too long. You could use your calendar to remind you when to get up from your desk.
  • Social Interaction – Many of us are used to chatting to colleagues in the workplace and miss the social aspect of working in the office. If physical contact isn’t possible you can use one of the many videoconferencing tools such as Zoom, Microsoft Teams or Google Meet to connect with other members of your team. These connections don’t all need to be work-related; a virtual tea-break or lunch break is a great way to get together.

How can company managers and leaders help team members that are starting to display symptoms of the mental health issues associated with prolonged quarantining? What practical tips do you have for managers and leaders on how to have honest, vulnerable conversations with employees that are struggling with their mental health?

Lisa Molloy: Conversations with employees happen in a number of ways such as regular one to one meetings, appraisals or more informal chats; all of which can provide platforms to discuss any problems an employee may be having.

Be approachable and consider asking open questions like “How are you doing at the moment?” or “Is there anything that I can do for you?”. Make sure the conversation is private and supportive and try to discover what you can do to help. It is important for the employee to know that they can share as much or as little as they want to with you. Following the initial conversation make sure you schedule a follow-up meeting or check-in to see how they are getting on.

As a line manager, you are not also expected to be an expert in mental health and in some cases, empathy and support may be all that is required. However, where there are serious problems, the best approach is to offer referral to someone professionally trained. Many organisations have Employee Assistance Programmes (EAP’s) where trained counsellors provide support to employees, within an agreed framework. Where such programmes are not in place, employers could refer their employees directly to a counsellor or psychotherapist, accredited with a professional body, as needed.

As a leader, you should strive to provide a safe culture and environment, where employees feel comfortable disclosing any mental health problems. In addition, managers should take the time to get to know their teams and communicate with them regularly so when the time comes, they will be able to notice any emotional difficulties or changes that might be happening for an employee.

What are some good resources people can access that will help them better look after their mental health and their general wellbeing?

Lisa Molloy: The IACP website has a range of practical tips, resources and videos to help people look after their mental health. We also have a nationwide directory on our website containing details of thousands of professionally qualified and accredited counsellors and psychotherapists.

There are multiple online tools, resources and applications that can provide mental health support.  My advice would be to ensure that you are accessing reputable websites and professionals.

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