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How to look after your mental health while you’re waiting for NHS support

Posted by for Mental Health

Finding yourself on the waiting list for much-needed support can be challenging – here are six things you need to know about looking after your mental health while you wait.

The mental health conversation has come a long way over the last couple of years. 

Thanks to the efforts of activists, celebrities and mental health charities alike, speaking out about our mental health – and seeking help when things get tough – has become increasingly normalised.

This is, of course, a very welcome development. But underneath the surface, things aren’t quite as great as they might seem. Because while seeking NHS help for your mental health is an incredibly important first step, the length of time it takes to actually receive that help can vary greatly depending on the number of people waiting for support and the area you live in.

Reaching out for support only to be told you’ll have to wait to see someone can be incredibly difficult – and it’s completely normal to feel overwhelmed or disappointed. But the good news is there are things you can do to take care of yourself during that in-between period that’ll make things a little easier. 

With this in mind, we asked two experts to share their top tips on how to cope while waiting for your first NHS therapy session. From maintaining a healthy routine to accessing self-help resources, here’s everything they had to say.

N.B. NHS Talking Therapies are free, effective and available to anyone who needs them. To seek help (or be placed on a waiting list if there is one), you can organise an appointment with your GP or self-refer online. For more information, visit the NHS website. 

1. Maintain a healthy routine

A woman practising yoga
Mental health advice: moving your body is a great way to look after both your physical and mental health.

Although it can be difficult to maintain any kind of routine when you’re struggling with your mental health, doing your best to stick to a healthy lifestyle can really make a difference.

Stephen Buckley, head of information at the mental health charity Mind, explains: “There are many things we can do to improve our mood and wellbeing that can be built into our daily routines. Regular physical activity is important. If you can get outdoors, exercising outside, ideally in nature, is great for our physical and mental health, and can help reduce stress hormones and improve sleep.

“Even something as simple as sitting by a window and watching the birds, or taking care of a pot plant, can be beneficial.”

Dr Zoe Williams, an NHS GP and member of the Strong Women collective, adds: “I’d recommend keeping a regular routine and doing the things you enjoy, such as watching your favourite tv programme or cooking.”

She continues: “I really can’t stress enough how important it is to take care of your physical health too. Exercising will do you the world of good, whether it’s going for a run, doing a home workout or simply going for a walk in the park, moving your body has endless benefits – both physical and mental. Try to eat healthily too and if you can, get a good night’s sleep.”

2. Reach out to friends and family

Whether you want to vent about the struggles you’re facing, talk about any worries you have about therapy or simply fancy seeing a friendly face, reaching out to friends and family can be incredibly helpful when you’re feeling low.

“Talking about your worries with people you trust will help,” Dr Williams explains. “While it’s harder to see our family and friends in person at the moment due to social distancing, it’s still very important to keep in touch and talk to the people you love, even if it’s a good old fashioned phone call or a virtual cuppa on video!”

3. Use the resources available

Although you might not be able to access face-to-face support straight away, there are a large number of free resources available which will give you the tools you need to help yourself for the time being.

“Because it can be very common to have to spend time on a waiting list before getting therapy through the NHS, you could explore any alternatives to therapy which might help in the meantime, such as self-help books,” Buckley explains. 

“Your GP might recommend particular titles from a Reading Well scheme called ‘Books On Prescription’. This scheme is supported by most local libraries, so you can go and check the books out for free – you don’t actually need a prescription from a doctor.”

Alongside self-help books, Dr Williams suggests checking out the NHS’ online resources: “I’d recommend visiting the Every Mind Matters website where there’s valuable advice and information, including some simple breathing exercises which can help you to feel more relaxed.”

Some apps and mental health charities also offer free online resources which can be accessed with the click of a button. To find out more about what’s on offer, you can check out our guide. 

4. Keep your mind stimulated

A woman listening to a podcast
Mental health advice: distracting yourself with stimulating books, podcasts and films is a great way to give your mind a break.

Taking care of your mental health isn’t just about dealing with any symptoms you might be experiencing – indeed, sometimes the best thing you can do is distract yourself and keep your mind active.

Buckley explains: “It’s important to keep your mind stimulated, occupied and challenged, so try to set aside time in your routine for this. Reading books, magazines and articles can help, or you could try listening to podcasts, watch films and do puzzles.”

5. Prepare for your first session

Whether or not you have a date for your first therapy session, there are things you can do to learn more about what to expect and prepare yourself.

If you haven’t been given a date yet, reading up on the basics of therapy – such as what happens in your first session or the kind of things your therapist might ask – is a great place to start. Then, once you’ve been given a date, you can start to get yourself ready for that first session. 

Dr Williams explains: “Preparing for your first session can make a real difference to how you feel and what you achieve as a result. In the lead up to your appointment, try to keep a diary of how you’re feeling. Journaling is not only a great way to offload your worries, but it can also help to provide your therapist with a really clear picture of how you have been feeling when your therapy begins. However, if you haven’t been able to prepare don’t worry, your therapist will not be expecting that you have.”

She continues: “On the day of your first session, I’d start by clearing space in your diary, make sure you have the time and won’t be interrupted. I would also make a list of the things you want to bring up in your first session and what you hope to achieve. Make a list of any medication you’re on and finally be prepared to be open and honest.”

Buckley adds: “It’s important to remember that you don’t have to talk about anything you’re not ready to talk about or do anything you don’t want to do. Remember, it’s common to feel worried or unsure about what to expect from therapy.

“If you’ve got a video call scheduled with a healthcare professional, it’s also a good idea to do a dummy run beforehand, to make sure you have the right software installed.”

6. In a crisis, seek immediate help

If you’re finding it hard to cope, feel like you’ve reached breaking point or need urgent help, it’s important to take immediate action.

If your life is at risk, call 999 or visit your local A&E department – they’re open 24 hours a day and you can visit them free of charge. 

If your life is not at risk, but you require urgent support, your local GP surgery should also offer you an appointment quickly. 

Buckley adds: “Other services, like helplines, provide trained listeners and often have other options for getting in touch, like email, text messaging or web chat. For example, Mind’s Infoline provides an information and signposting service, and is open 9am to 6pm, Monday to Friday (except for bank holidays).”

For more information on crisis services you can access, including crisis houses and inpatient hospital services, you can check out Mind’s guide here.

Dr Zoe Williams is supporting the NHS ‘Help Us, Help You’ Mental Health campaign to increase awareness of NHS talking therapies services (IAPT). If you are struggling with anxiety or depression, please do come forward. Ask your GP for a referral to NHS Talking Therapies, or you can self-refer via nhs.uk/talk

You can find additional support and resources on the mental health charity Mind’s website or visit the NHS’ list of mental health helplines and organisations and the NHS Every Mind Matters resource hub.

For confidential support, you can also call the Samaritans in the UK on 116 123 or email jo@samaritans.org.

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Lauren Geall

As Stylist’s digital writer, Lauren Geall writes on topics including mental health, wellbeing and work. She’s also a big fan of houseplants and likes to dabble in film and TV from time-to-time.