With a looming economic uncertainty, accentuated by a cost-of-living crisis, ongoing industrial action and NHS facing increasing pressures, feelings of anxiety and even depression are likely to affect many of us and hence an even greater need to focus on self-care.
On that note, in this edition of the Frontline Series, iGlobal speaks with Birmingham-based Dr Amal Lad, an NHS GP, musician and mental health activist. His ‘Creative Medicine Podcast’ focuses on exploring the connection between health and creativity. He is a trustee of the South Asian Health Foundation, which works to reduce health inequalities within the UK South Asian community. Dr Lad is currently pursuing his Masters in Performing Arts Medicine at UCL.
What are your views on the NHS strikes?
One great thing about this country is that you can access healthcare without paying for any big or small problems. It's a life-saving world-class quality of care as well. And if you were to take that out of the equation, it kind of forces this disparity between different economic groups, worsening inequality. We don't realise how great the NHS is until we don't have it as it is now.
So in terms of the strikes, I think it's not necessarily about pay but respect, autonomy and being valued as an employee. And being treated like a person and not a number. I think this is bubbling to the surface and manifesting in these strikes.
Of course, there's a practical reason nurses are striking for a pay rise. I've worked with many nurses who work incredibly hard and sacrifice a lot, and are highly skilled in what they do. They need to be valued in that respect. The sticking point is the funding for the NHS, which can be a bottomless pit. So, trying to devise a compromise is probably the hardest part.
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How can we cope with anxiety/depression resulting from such uncertainties and find happiness?
The right word, I think, is not happy but what we call – 'Resilience'. It's pretty similar to physical health. For instance, if you were to run a marathon, you can't just wake up and run. That'll put an incredible amount of stress on your body. It'll be tough to cope with the marathon without the right training. In the same way, when there's stress, which could arise from the threat of not being able to pay your mortgage or your energy bills or losing your job or not being able to put food on the table for your family, it gets complicated. Because you can't train yourself for these things like you would for a marathon. So with mental health, stress is inevitable.
But if you can develop a regular practice to maintain your mental health, it will eventually lead to developing your resilience. So, when you face a difficult phase in life, dealing with it will be easier.
We just marked Valentine's Day this week; do such days help with emotional wellbeing?
Yeah, absolutely. I think humans are community-based, social animals. The feeling of connection that we get when we interact with people we care about is perfect for our well-being. But it goes beyond just celebrating a particular day. It's essential that you're surrounded by those who love and care for you and support you. From a very early stage in human development, babies need to connect with their mother and father when they are born. That's what creates a bond, and that's what prolongs life and health as well. We saw that during the COVID lockdown too. We were forced into isolation that profoundly impacted people's mental health, with a secondary impact on physical health.
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How do you unwind after a long, hard day at work?
Music is the thing for me. Music helps me understand myself and reconnect. Often, what happens as a GP is after a long day of seeing 30 to 35 patients, listening to their problems, trying to solve these problems – and some of them are not even solvable. This builds on a lot of frustration within. People listen to the news and hear that GPs aren't doing anything, and it's not true. You come home with all of that in your head, filled with stress and emotions. And for me, Music is a way of getting rid of all these negativities, so I can go back the next day feeling much better. Music is like meditation to me in a way, but without silence. (laughs)
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What is your message for your colleagues – doctors and nurses who are under a lot of pressure right now?
So, you don't necessarily become a doctor in a hospital or a nurse if your aim in life is to earn lots of money. Professions like these involve a lot of passion and a sense of purpose, and it becomes something beyond just a 9 to 5 job. This is why people feel angry, and a lot of emotion gets attached to it when you don't feel valued as a doctor, nurse, healthcare assistant, or cleaners. Money is also a quantifiable way of valuing somebody's time and commitment to the job.
With erratic shifts and prolonged working hours, the kind of burnout we face is the main problem. So, we're trying to avoid burnout and look after each other. We must stand for and respect each other in the healthcare system. And also give one another space and time and have each other's back.
If you do not have proper rest, if you're staying beyond your contracted hours, these things will ultimately add up and can lead to poor mental and physical health. That can have a problem with paid work, having time off, sick pay, and then subsequently, you can't pay your bills. So, it's like a downward spiral. From the beginning, we must respect each other and take time before burnout.