Mental health matters, with Nic Goddard

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The Highlands has long been considered an area where mental health issues raise cause for concern with Fort William dubbed ‘a mental health black hole’ due to the large numbers of people suffering depression, anxiety and high rates of suicide.

While the reaction to the coronavirus pandemic has been largely focused on physical wellbeing, the lockdown measures have undoubtedly had an impact on people’s mental wellbeing and as we take the first tentative steps back towards ‘normal’ life, pretty much everyone will emerge affected by the legacy of the strange times we find ourselves living through.

Some of these issues are specific to our demographic groups – from the young people who have had interruptions in their education or face uncertainty about their future with cancelled exams to the elderly and those with underlying health issues who have been shielding.

Many in the area make a living from tourism-based work so may be facing employment or financial concerns.

The usual support networks of socialising, sporting activities, hobbies and
recreational pursuits have been closed down to us and even as everything gradually opens back up there will be fear and trepidation as to how safe it is.

But we are not alone. There are many organisations and support networks in place throughout the area. Charities and organisations exist and have been operating throughout lockdown, albeit sometimes in different ways to usual.

As lockdown eases and we return to a ‘new normal’ we will be focusing on some of these methods of support with spotlights on some of the ways in which you can access help, stories about the people who work, volunteer and use these organisations, hints and tips for taking care of your mental wellbeing and some of the many local resources our readers can draw upon.

One such organisation, Ewen’s Room, a charity on the peninsula offering support to promote mental wellbeing with a telephone helpline, open door drop-in sessions in Strontian, Acharacle and Fort William (prior to lockdown) and running workshops, has moved to online zoom hosted sessions during the pandemic.

I spoke with Hugh Asher from Ewen’s Room about the recent Coping with Covid workshop he hosted online.

Hugh explained that moving from in person to online workshops has been a great support for people during the lockdown, telling me: ‘We had nine people attend the recent Coping with Covid workshop, which is more than we average for our face-to-face sessions.

‘Opening them up online has meant that in these rural areas people don’t need to travel to join in, which can be a barrier. A registration process makes the sessions secure and all attendees are able to see the rest of the group, so we’re still getting that face-to-face feedback, albeit via a screen.’

The workshop took more of a discussion group format than a slideshow, with participants sharing their own concerns and stories about life during the lockdown and the current easing of restrictions.

Topics included people feeling fearful about contracting coronavirus themselves or about vulnerable and shielding friends and relatives being infected.

Attendees shared frustrations about others not following guidelines and concerns about how safe the return of visitors to the area was. There were also positive experiences shared of communities pulling together and the vital role that volunteers and small local businesses had played.

Hugh told me that the group also shared tips and ideas for dealing with covid-related anxiety.

‘Some great ideas that came up were limiting your exposure to the news and social media, having a go at some mindfulness techniques and trying to maintain a good daily routine of eating healthily and getting enough sleep.

‘The session included signposting to helpful online resources. A top tip was to try to stay active – exercise has been shown to reduce stress, anxiety and depression.

‘Try and exercise outside if possible as evidence suggests that we benefit more from exercise done outside in nature rather than indoors. Walking in nature can also boost memory, creativity and enhance problem-solving skills.’

The course proved so useful that it is being run again on August 18. It is open to everyone and you can find more information about how to register at

Hugh told me: ‘The feedback was positive with people feeling that they had learned some new things to try to help them to maintain good mental and physical wellbeing during this period and the opportunity to talk to a wider group of people than their immediate friends and family – something they had had limited opportunity to do recently.’

As part of our mental wellbeing column we will also be offering a mental health Q and A service where you can write / email in with a question and we will be printing answers to your questions drawing on the help and advice of an expert. Get in touch at