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How to instantly make someone’s day – and improve your mental health at the same time

Adam Woodward is Head Chef at Cygnet Hospital Coventry and recipient of this year’s CEO Special Nomination at Cygnet’s Acts of Random Kindness (ARK) Awards for his ‘excellent customer service and a can-do attitude’. As the UK marks National Mental Health Awareness Week (18-24 May), with the theme of ‘kindness’, Adam shares his thoughts on the value of kindness to mental health care.

During my last year at school, there was a picture on the classroom wall that made a real impression on me. It said: “Lonely people build walls, not bridges.” I wasn’t the best at school, but the day I went to get my exam results, my teacher gave the picture to me because he knew I liked it, and he said: ‘Let this be your inspiration’.

That small act of kindness made me feel really valued. At a time when things had been difficult, I suddenly felt happy and useful and important. Over 30 years later, I still have that picture.

This week is Mental Health Awareness Week (18-24 May), and I was reminded of this memory because the theme for 2020 is kindness. I can’t think of anything more important, especially during this time when we are still in lockdown and many people are feeling isolated. Even experiencing small acts of kindness make us feel happy – and make the world a better place.

It works both ways. There are plenty of studies that show people who are grateful and kind have higher levels of wellbeing and are happier, less depressed, less stressed and more satisfied with their lives and social relationships. It’s not just in our head – random acts of kindness are linked to releasing feel-good hormones that contribute to our mood and overall wellbeing. In our sector, in particular, the connection between kindness and mental health cannot be underestimated.

Acts of kindness come in many forms. It might be a smile or acknowledging someone has done a good job. When I think of the skills I can offer, it might be making someone a birthday cake or a special meal. Things can be tough for those experiencing mental health problems and taking the time to sit down and listen to someone can mean the world to them. It can even make the difference needed to prevent self-harm. When someone you’ve listened to says ‘thanks, it really helped me to get things off my chest’, that’s reward in itself.

Kindness has that extraordinary power to transform people. Before I joined the team at Cygnet Hospital Coventry three years ago, I volunteered in a day centre for the homeless. There was one gentleman who had been rough sleeping for many months and had an interview lined up with the housing team. We helped him have a shower, found him some nice clothes and I clipped his beard. He said it made him feel really proud and these simple gestures helped change his life. After many months on the streets, he went on to having his own flat.

Although I’m on the catering team at Cygnet Hospital Coventry, we know all the patients and get really involved. We don’t just do the catering; it’s just as much our job here to empower people and respect them and show we care.

One of our first ever patients in the psychiatric intensive care unit had been in the service for many years and, for whatever reason, she had lost connection with her family. Thinking back to that early lesson I learned – that lonely people build walls, not bridges – it still makes me well up with tears of happiness to picture her going home for Christmas because we helped her to re-build those bridges. After many years on hospital wards, she is now living in independent accommodation and that’s fantastic.

I’m a big believer in paying it forward when someone shows kindness towards you, and Mental Health Awareness Week is a great opportunity for us all to show our support to someone. Doing something I love and being part of a great team at Cygnet Hospital Coventry, where we’re all respectful and supportive of each other, makes me feel happier, too.

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