2016 has been an uncomfortable year in many ways, the final flourish being the prospect of a Trump presidency. It can leave one feeling swept along by events larger than oneself. So how wonderful to learn of a ‘bright spot’ - something to inspire to rather than detract: a study suggesting that being a scout or guide in childhood has a protective effect on mental health decades later, an effect that boosts the mental health especially of those from disadvantaged backgrounds, who usually bear more burden of mental health problems.

It’s at once remarkable that such a simple, low-cost activity can have such a lasting impact, whilst also startlingly obvious that regular connection and sharing challenges with others seems to be such a powerful thing in building lasting resilience.

As sessional GPs, how good are we at tapping into sources of support and avoiding the isolation that is often our lot? In a recent NASGP Facebook poll, over half (30/58) the respondents say they do not have formal meetups with other sessional GPs, with a third (19/58) saying they never meet up at all, and around 20% (11/58) ‘bumping into colleagues informally’.

Many of us turn to social media forums, perhaps seeking comradeship. Much great support can be found by sharing interesting cases and seeking advice on tricky situations amongst a pool of hundreds of colleagues putting their heads together. But are these forums, valuable as they are, an adequate replacement for group meetings?

You will no doubt have already noticed the tendency for people to be meaner online than they would otherwise be in a face-to-face interaction that’s moderated by the setting of a group. The world is also waking up to the phenomenon of social media tending to act as an echo chamber, with comments to posts tending to amplify the outrage and frustration we can feel about the unreasonable demands placed on general practice by patients and other services. Cathartic as this no doubt can be, sometimes after reading a series of rants, usually on repeated themes with no solutions being offered, one can be left feeling drained and demoralised; quite the opposite of resilient.

So this little ray of sunshine about the guides and scouts prompted me to rewind to my days as a Brownie, and comparisons with my locum chambers group.
We’ve now been meeting up together every 8 weeks for the past 8 years. A few members have come and gone, some to practice-based jobs or other countries, but there’s a hard core of fixed members to welcome newer ones. We’re all over the age 10, there are no uniforms or singing (wild swimming and gardening have been known though!) but I look forward to these regular fixtures, just as I used to with brownies; meeting with colleagues of diverse backgrounds and ages, that I wouldn’t otherwise know; supporting each other through complaints and managing unrealistic practice and patient demands; embarking on joint projects which have got us through appraisal.

Life would be harder and less colourful without this group; I have never left one of these meetings feeling drained and demoralised.

So next time your peace is disturbed by stumbling across an online catharsis from frustrated colleagues and you feels tensions rising and morale dipping, have a think about raising something that’s more closely related to your own experiences and that you can your colleagues might be able to affect, at your next group meeting. Large, complex problems can have small, grassroots solutions. And if you’re not already a member, take a look at the NASGP website for advice on either joining a group or setting a new one up.

This article first appeared in the December edition of The Sessional GP magazine.

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