Covid-19: Four small words make a difference in the pandemic

By Louise Cullen
BBC News NI

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media captionThe small question making a big difference in a County Fermanagh village

During the pandemic, four small words have been making a difference for some people.

"How are you feeling?" is the question community pharmacists have been posing to their customers, regular and new, in a bid to create conversation around mental health.

For people in Belcoo, in County Fermanagh at the edge of Northern Ireland, a trip to the doctor involves a 16-mile round trip, because there's no local surgery.

That means community pharmacist Joe McAleer has found himself on the frontline.

"We see the patients on a daily or weekly basis, and we know that just that simple question - how are you feeling? - opens the door to a lot of answers," he said.

image captionJoe McAleer said community pharmacists like him have helped provide a mental outlet to customers during the pandemic

"We see these people on a daily basis, maybe two, three times a week.

"So we can see maybe changes in their appearance, changes in their demeanour."

Joe said it has been particularly noticeable for elderly people coming to their doors, who have not had any "mental outlets".

"Physically they're not as able as they were, because they haven't been active, haven't had the community groups to go to and mentally haven't had interactions with their friends and their relatives," he said.

"And we can see how they open up to us as community pharmacists, because they have that regular contact. They know they can speak to us.

"It really has made a big difference to a lot of people."

The question is also the name of a leaflet produced by the Public Health Agency (PHA) available in community pharmacies across Northern Ireland, which contains five steps people can take to look after their mental health and wellbeing.

One person who took the leaflet home with her was Nicola Martin. She moved to Fermanagh from England in 2017 and has suffered from mental health problems since she was 11 years old.

Being asked "how are you feeling?" was important to her.

"I didn't have to hide," she said.

"I could say, 'I'm all right today', or, 'I don't feel that good today', and the reasons why."

She added: "I could get upset, or I could be angry, and no-one judged me for that. They would always give me time. Even if it was five minutes or ten minutes.

"I'd walk out of the pharmacy feeling 100% better."

For Una O'Reilly, it's a significant question to be asked.

She was outgoing, and involved in many local groups, but they all shut down as the pandemic hit. So she took to the roads, taking on walking challenges.

image captionWalking challenges helped Una O'Reilly during lockdown

"I did a 500km challenge first, then a 700km challenge to raise funds for a local charity," she said.

"This helped me to keep going, to do something, to get out every day and to talk to people.

"And maybe meet people in the street - in a small village you meet people and you say, 'well, how are you?' And I think that was the secret.

"I did see the notes in the pharmacy and they have helped me to speak to other people."

Two-way street

Bringing mental health conversations into the open also helped Nicola discover she wasn't alone.

"I realised everybody was in the same boat - people that didn't have mental health issues were probably suffering as much as I was suffering" she said.

"It's just like having one big extended family, and as much I've relied on them, the staff have also said people have helped them get through it as well.

"So it's been a two-way thing."

For information about organisations which offer support, please visit the BBC Action Line website here.

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