Supporting Essential Workers: Preventing the Next Mental Health Crisis
The marathon of news coverage surrounding the COVID-19 pandemic has frequently addressed the implications of this crisis on the physical health of Americans for years to come, but what about the impact on our mental health? Specifically, what will we do to support the mental health of those on the front lines of the battle against COVID-19. The tragic deaths by suicide of John Mondello and Lorna Breen, two health care workers on the front lines in New York City may portend of further heartbreak to come if mental health is not addressed with the same fervor as the physical health of essential workers. Health care workers and other personnel considered essential to society during this crisis are experiencing an unprecedented amount of work related stress. Though health care personnel are trained on managing crisis scenarios, this situation has proven to be distinctly devastating for everyone on the front lines. As we continue to clap for the health care workers and other essential personnel who put their lives on the line for us every day, it is imperative that we take action to prevent a potential mental health crisis.
Emergency medical technician John Mondello and emergency physician Lorna Breen were doing their jobs against impossible odds as the situation in New York intensified into chaos. Dr. Breen’s father was quoted saying, “She tried to do her job, and it killed her.” Health care workers are well-trained to manage the intensity of a medical crisis. But few are equally able to manage its lasting mental health repercussions. This was true even before the coronavirus pandemic. According to Statnews.com, moral injury and burnout were common among clinicians. Moral injury is defined as the damage done to one's conscience or moral compass when that person perpetrates, witnesses, or fails to prevent acts that transgress one's own moral beliefs, values, or ethical codes of conduct. With many physicians having to choose between who gets a ventilator and who does not, in addition to being forced to prevent their patients’ family members from saying goodbye in person it is plausible that many health care workers are experiencing moral injury. How can we support family, friends and neighbors who are going out on the front lines every day?
Rachel E. Smith, an army nurse who faced the SARS-CoV-2 virus in 2003 shared the following steps in her Op-ed post on StatNews.com for maintaining sanity as a member of the front lines:
Recognize and Acknowledge: Take the time to be afraid. This situation may require essential workers to take on roles that they have never had before. This can be a frightening experience. Rachel suggests that naming these experiences as what they are can help individuals begin to sort through the complex emotions that they bring up. Many times there is no time to process these emotions in the moment, so if you are supporting a friend, family member or partner who is an essential worker it can be helpful to encourage them to express their fears in whatever way they are able to. It is important to validate these fears and remind them that you are there to support them through this.
End-of-shift Campfires: At the end of the day, coming home may feel like returning home to a different planet for essential workers. Rachel encourages essential workers to spend time with their coworkers decompressing before coming home. Many hospitals around the country have emphasized the importance of team time, but I argue that this is also necessary for grocery workers, delivery personnel and postal workers. The ability to share battle stories with folks who are in the trenches with you can be immensely healing in itself. As an ally, encourage essential workers around you to open up to their coworkers for support.
Improvise, adapt and overcome: Rachel emphasized that this Marine mantra is important now more than ever. As we have seen, processes in almost all aspects of daily life have been adjusted to help keep everyone safe. Keeping this phrase in mind can provide a sense of hope as we adjust to these changes. We are all collectively overcoming one of the largest challenges to public health in our lifetimes. These changes will be uncomfortable at times, but if we remember who we are fighting for we will see this through. If meditation and mindfulness are becoming necessary to get you through the day, then use those tools and do your best to have patience with yourself through all of this.
Here at Ayana, we stand with essential workers and the family and friends who support them. We thank you for all of your hard work and sacrifice. You deserve to be taken care of, and we look forward to supporting essential workers by providing therapy services. Until then, remember to validate the complex emotions of essential workers, encourage them to reach out to their colleagues and understand that each day brings new challenges but ultimately we will collectively overcome.