Mental Health Awareness Week – Dave Partlow’s story

Dave Partlow, Somerset County Council Adult Social Care Strategic Manager, talks about the emotional rollercoaster of working in high stress frontline jobs, how he dealt with that pressure and his introduction to the Five Ways of Wellbeing – principles of support he was already unconsciously using in his life. Throughout the pandemic, Dave has supported care providers with advice and guidance, worked with Public Health colleagues on managing and supporting providers through outbreaks, supported the management and provision of PPE, supported the care sector with testing, and managed the care sector vaccination programme.

I think we can all look back over the last 18 months with a great deal of pride in all that we have achieved, but also need to reflect on the cost that has been paid by many with respect to their mental wellbeing.

It has been tough and remains so, but we have pulled together and achieved the extraordinary and that should help us better understand what we can accomplish when we work together.

When I reflect on Mental health Awareness week I look back at a fairly varied career. I spent six years in the Army – mostly in Germany, but with a tour in Sarajevo during the Balkans conflict, where we became isolated and surrounded by military forces that didn’t particularly warm to the presence of UN and UK forces.  I then spent 23 years in the ambulance service experiencing many highs and lows, attending calls where I’ve delivered babies and where I’ve held the hand of someone as they have died.  That exposure to significant trauma and the sheer emotional rollercoaster that is life in the emergency services has helped me appreciate the need to manage my own mental wellbeing.  Seeing some friends struggle and some be totally overcome with their mental ill health has driven me in many respects to work within such a fantastic team within adult social care in Somerset, to try, as we all do, to make a difference in some small way.

For many of us during this pandemic the demand on us, as individuals and teams has increased and whilst many will be able to point to examples of positive growth through new experiences and opportunities; many will have struggled with increasing demands and fewer opportunities to deal with the emotional burdens that have been created as a result.

For me personally I particularly struggled over the Christmas and New Year period, when we experienced a large number of outbreaks in care homes struggling to deal with their individual crisis and reaching out to us for help.  It was horrible, knowing what they needed and being completely powerless to provide the solution.  We simply couldn’t find enough staff willing to work in our homes, and for me, wanting desperately to help but feeling completely inadequate was difficult.  I know I couldn’t have done more, but that doesn’t make it any easier, and that has been the most difficult part of the pandemic for me – that inability to do what I know needs to be done. 

I haven’t always known about the Five Ways to Wellbeing, but have often unconsciously sought them out as a means of bringing balance to my life. I thought I would just talk through how I have adapted them to help address periods of increased stress and strain in my own life.

Connect: Covid has shown us how important social interaction and connection is.  We are mostly social animals and need to be connected with others to thrive.  Throughout Covid I’ve found this difficult – I’m very lucky to have my family and have to their support, but the transition to home working and lack of external connection has been hard.

Be Active:  I have always been very active, from playing multiple sports at school, life in the military, to taking up ultra-marathon running later in life. This has always provided me with an effective outlet when times are hard.  I run or use a cross trainer every morning before work, and then a long run on Saturdays. I also play football and coach rugby, and I’ve always believed in the significant connection between my physical and mental wellbeing.

Take Notice: We are very lucky to live in a beautiful part of the country and have the opportunity, daily, to take notice of our surroundings and find peace within them.  This has been impacted by Covid, with fewer places open for social activities, but it’s also been an opportunity to find new places off the beaten track – new walks for the dog and exploring places in my local area that I just didn’t know existed.

I also think that taking notice is about being more reflective, taking notice of how we are feeling, and giving ourselves a break once in a while.  We all need to know when we need a break – when things are becoming tough and when we need to reach out for help.

Likewise, taking notice is about being aware of others – taking the time to notice when they are struggling, and being there when people need that helping hand.  Sometimes it’s just taking notice – acknowledging the struggle and making it known that you are there for them should they need you. Often that is all that is needed – just to know that you are there.

Keep Learning: keeping the mind active is important, but it’s equally important to give it a break or to allow it to focus on something else.  Read a book, complete a puzzle or join a family quiz.  It’s important to provide time to think about something else or even sometimes to just not think, just to be immersed in an activity where time for thought is removed.

Give: giving is what we all do whilst we are at work, and for many, whilst the struggles with the pandemic have been all-consuming, there is also the very real positive impact of being involved in that struggle – of having purpose and making a difference.  For me personally, the pandemic has been hard. There have been huge difficulties, but there has also been a huge response – a coming together and a real sense of success in what we’ve all achieved together.

Having a focus outside work is also important to me. I coach kids rugby and I also help run the club, arranging training sessions, organising fixtures and events and doing anything else that is needed to keep 220 kids engaged in sport.  I’m also a Trustee of a Suicide Bereavement Charity called Pete’s Dragons.  These outside activities help me give back to my community, and they also help me maintain my mental wellbeing – I get as much out of giving my time as the organisations get from my involvement.

It’s been a difficult year and I’m sure there will be many struggles ahead. At times it has felt overwhelming, and I have had many sleepless nights worrying about PPE or availability of testing, or outbreaks in care homes or how we are going to get social care staff vaccinated.  I have felt hugely anxious at times – I have felt the stress associated with a lack of control and an inability to solve the problems that I’ve faced, but I have also been surrounded by a huge number of people who understand, and who and are there to support me when I need it.