All week it’s National Conversation Week. Sounds simple enough, do we really need to be reminded to put down our myriad of devices to have an actual conversation?
Sadly, we do.
In these days when we can communicate via 180 characters or by stringing emoji’s together, the art of the conversation is risking being lost.
As human beings we crave social connection. Like many mammals, we are social creatures.
Communication, and conversation, is so pivotal in medicine. Whether it be breaking bad news to a patient or relative, explaining the risks of treatments, or just allowing a patient to talk and unburden themselves. Conversations are two way streets. But it’s in the area of mental health where a conversation can be the most important.
A common feature of depression is withdrawal and social isolation. A patient who is battling depression actively seeks to be alone and will often close down to the outside world. It might seem trivial, but just asking how someone is can make a real difference to the one who is suffering.
It’s a common misconception that talking about suicide with someone who is depressed will ‘put ideas in their head’. Having a conversation, or letting a friend, colleague or loved one know you are willing to have that conversation, can go some way to shining a light in their darkest of hours.
As GP’s, we work within a geographical boundary and have responsibility for the health for patients within that area. Each GP will find their patients in that area can be slightly different – younger, older, rural, urban, higher or lower socioeconomic class, and sometimes a real mixture.
Our practice area contains a high number of elderly patients and loneliness is something we see often. It is not uncommon on a home visit to sit with someone and realise you might be the only person they see that week. As a professional, it’s heartbreaking. As a human, even more so. Unfortunately as a GP in my day to day life, we don’t always have enough time to sit and reminisce with our patients, providing them that social connection they crave. Just as the health service is stretched, so is our social care system. The number of isolated elderly people living in the U.K. will only increase as medicine advances and life expectancy increases. There are charities and organisations which try to help combat the loneliness by providing outreach programmes and day centres.
For me, I wish that we all took ten minutes out of our day to have a conversation with someone who might really need it. We exist in communities but live in our own bubbles. Say hello. Ask how they are. Listen. You don’t know if you are the only person they may speak to that day.