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Embracing self care for life

The co-Chair of the Self Care Fund looks at how the charity is striving to embed self care in everyday life:

During Self Care Week, which runs from 13 to 19 November, the Self Care Forum endeavours to raise awareness about the benefits of self care, and address the key question: What is self care?

Quite simply, according to our co-Chair Dr Pete Smith, self care is the action people take to live a healthier, happier, more fulfilling life.

This sounds clear and straightforward, right?  Then why are we finding it so difficult to get the message across to people?

The difficulty might be due to the lack of clarity about what self care actually is, and how we are communicating these messages.  Self care seems to mean different things to different people, which is understandable because it is so broad and encompasses so much. But our inconsistency is confusing for the very people we want to support to self care.

If we, as health providers and commissioners, can clarify the breadth of meaning of self care, then we stand a better chance of supporting people to understand, not only what it is, but how to practice it and embrace ‘self care for life’.

Most of us already self care every day of our lives to benefit our physical health and mental wellbeing. When we brush our teeth, that’s self care. When we eat healthily and exercise, that’s self care; when we take steps to stop smoking – that’s self care, and when we take our full lunch break and make time for ourselves – this is also self care.

Utilising self care becomes a bit trickier when we lack the knowledge and confidence to look after our own health and when our health literacy is poor. For instance, when we suffer from minor conditions such as hay fever, a sore throat, or cough and colds, most of us instinctively know what to do. Whether it’s reaching for an over-the-counter medicine to help relieve symptoms, going to the pharmacy for advice, or simply knowing when we need some rest and relaxation: these are all examples of self care.

Critically, some people need our help with understanding exactly how to self-treat. Knowledge is powerful and, educating people about the normal duration of symptoms, how to identify red flag symptoms and when to seek medical attention, can all help people feel empowered and confident in knowing what to do when symptoms of common conditions strike.

The Self Care Forum fact sheets can help with decisions about common conditions.

Many people confuse self care with the self-management of long term conditions.  Whilst it’s true that self-management is self care, it is only a small part of the self care continuum and we need to be helping people to realise in practice the full extent of self care and not solely concentrate on one aspect.

After all, as well as using self-management, people with long term conditions also have to be aware of how to self-treat other minor conditions, how to maintain their mental wellbeing and how to prevent further disease.

Preventing ill health is also part of self care and, while it’s great that we are getting better at supporting people with long term conditions, this cannot be at the expense of improving prevention. If we don’t get better at proactively delivering self care advice about how we can avoid preventable diseases, then the numbers of people contracting long term conditions will never be reduced, and NHS funding for these conditions will continue to exponentially increase.

This is especially crucial since we are all living longer, but not living longer healthily.

Our aim and vision must be to have an empowered population that is fully health literate with self care as its habit and culture. For this we must support people to become fully competent at every stage of the continuum throughout their lives.

If we fail in this then what will the future of our NHS look like when self care is no longer an option?

Dr Selwyn Hodge

Dr Selwyn Hodge is co-Chair of the Self Care Forum.

Having trained as a research organic chemist, he qualified as a teacher and became Deputy Head of a large 11-18 comprehensive school.

Selwyn then returned to higher education, as a research fellow for a Government technical and vocational education initiative, and a lecturer in chemistry education in initial teacher training.

His next move was into local government, firstly as a schools science adviser and then Chief Education Adviser and Deputy Director of Education. During this timehe was closely involved in public health initiatives.

Later Selwyn became an inspector of schools for OFSTED.

He was previously Chair of the Royal Society for the Promotion of Health, Chair of the Royal Society for Public Health and a Board member of the National Association of Clubs for Young People. And was also Honorary Editor of the RSPH Journal Perspectives in Public Health.

Currently he is Chair of Ambition, a leading UK youth charity, and an adviser to the Public Health England Well North Programme.

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