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An Interview with Ruth Chaloner

The Help Hub was set up by psychotherapist Ruth Chaloner in April this year. When the Covid-19 crisis started, Ruth rapidly adapted her service to provide free emotional support through qualified volunteer psychotherapists and counsellors. We chat to Ruth about how the pandemic is affecting people’s mental health, and how you can look after yourself and loved ones during these difficult times.

How does The Help Hub work?

It's really simple. You just go to our website and click to book a session. You then can choose from a video session or telephone session and a calendar comes up with options for dates to choose from. It’s a bit like an online supermarket shop really. If you can't access the internet yourself, somebody else can do it for you. Once you've booked your slot you’ll be asked for your email address and contact details so that a therapist can call you at the booked time. Then you’ll know exactly when your 20 minute session is due to happen and can be ready. This isn't therapy, but online emotional support - something to help someone who’s really struggling and needs help right now.

Why was it set up?

I decided to set up the Help Hub at the very beginning of the pandemic. I'd been watching the news and following the development of Covid-19 around the world and it scared me. I could see that we would be following other countries with a lockdown and started to think about the mental health repercussions for people in the UK. I live alone and knew that I would probably have quite a hard time in isolation - I also have an immune deficiency due to Lyme disease and so knew I would have to shield. So I started to think about other people with existing mental health issues and how it would exacerbate those: feelings of loneliness, being unloved or forgotten - I think I shared some of those fears too. Isolation can be so difficult for so many people and is known to bring issues to the fore for many. Of course, there are many other impacts, such as on people with addictions who rely on their connections to get through difficult times.

I was also very concerned for elderly and vulnerable people. There are already so many elders in our community who feel cut off. I have a 97-year-old neighbour and she relies greatly on her neighbours - fortunately, where we live, there’s a good social network around, and we are very aware of her needs - but I knew she would find it very hard without her usual channels of communication. Our elders are having the last years of their lives stolen away from them, they have been unable to access their families or just to have the closeness of touch and the odd hug - it’s so sad.

I felt absolutely overwhelmed by the idea of some of the social impacts and so contacted Blenheim Palace to see if they could help. I had been in discussions with their CEO Dominic Hare. I had asked if Blenheim might help me set up a bursary for people who couldn't afford therapy, and had found themselves with a long wait for NHS services (before C-19 it was around 6 months unless chronic, now it's probably more than a year). Anxiety, until now, was probably the biggest epidemic of our country and I wanted to be able to help local people access the help they needed, particularly those with low incomes. I phoned Dominic and asked for his help, which has since that day been amazing - it has made all the difference and helped to create a National service, with around 800 volunteer therapists all offering their time for free and helping anyone who needs it.

What happens next after the free appointment?

Once you have had your appointment, you are welcome to book another one.

What can people do if they're concerned about the mental health of a friend or family member?

You are very welcome to book a session on behalf of a friend or relative - but only with their permission. If you are worried about someone, do take the time to sit with them and talk through their concerns. Sometimes it helps to just be heard. We are all going through an anxious time at the moment and regular contact from a friend can make all the difference. If you are concerned that someone has withdrawn so much that they cannot talk, do encourage them to go to their GP for help, or help them book a session with a therapist to explore their feelings.

A lot of the worry-inducing uncertainty at the moment is due to factors outside of our control - what practical steps can people take to look after their own mental health?

I think it's really important to ensure you take time to look after yourself. For me, that means my daily walk in the mornings with my dog, regular breaks during the day and plenty of sleep. We all have different needs, but trying to be “present” and “in the moment” helps. Enjoy that meal/book/conversation and try to avoid racing ahead and worrying about the “next thing”. Make sure you eat properly, stay aware of alcohol intake and make meaningful connections with those around you. Many people are juggling work and childcare - try to carve out some time for yourself as well, and where possible - get outside and breathe!

Why aren't more people using the service - what needs to change to reduce the stigma around seeking help?

I think the stigma is changing - particularly in these times. I think our biggest problem at The Help Hub is generating awareness and making sure that the message gets our to everyone. This is a service for everyone. You may be mildly blue or you may be in crisis. The reason we have qualified therapists as our volunteers is because we are equipped to deal with anything, or can refer on to someone who can help. Looking after your mental state is essential. I think the more people talk about their feelings, the more people will feel comfortable with it. I have a friend who calls me every week just to see how I am - how about doing that for one of your friends?

What would you say to someone who is considering reaching out but is unsure if The Help Hub is for them?

Try it! It’s free!

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