I started this new blog with the intention of bringing evidence-based information regarding mental health to anyone who reads it. I intended to start out light and start to tackle the heavier stuff as you all got to know me a little bit. That changed Tuesday night.
I was in a meeting listening to a colleague of mine share her experience working in the emergency department during COVID. She talked about how difficult it’s been for her to disconnect from COVID after she leaves work. Friends, family, society, politicians, everyone is talking about COVID. Anyone who hasn’t lived under a rock for the last 2 years knows what’s been happening and while COVID has impacted everyone, everywhere, it seems to have disproportionately impacted healthcare workers.
Now, let me be clear, I’ve made a commitment to myself to not take deep dives into politics, not to fight conspiracy theories, and not to try and influence anyone with my own personal beliefs. I intend to stick to that commitment. I’m not here to try and convince you to get vaccinated or wear a mask or anything of the like. You do you, boo… What I AM going to tell you is that your decisions impact us significantly. And it’s not just my colleague in the meeting, it’s nurses everywhere that I’ve talked to, from all walks of life. We watch CNN and we watch FOX news. We voted Democrat, Republican, and Independent. We are black, brown, indigenous, white, African-American, Asian/pacific islanders, and every other color of the beautiful rainbow that makes up the United States of America. All of us working in healthcare have been impacted in one way or another by the decisions that you’ve made.
The universal truth is that some of you can do something to help us yet choose not to. To add insult to injury, you don’t even believe us when we tell you that you actually have COVID. My colleagues have shared stories of being insulted, assaulted, and called stupid and “sheeple” after delivering a COVID diagnosis. We’ve been told that COVID isn’t real and it’s just a government conspiracy. But we’re the ones watching the healthy, college-age kid die of this disease. We’re the ones holding your mother and father’s hands so that they don’t die alone in a hospital bed. We’re the ones experiencing the moral injury and vicarious trauma. And now we’re drowning.
A 2021 survey conducted by the Kaiser Family Foundation found that about two-thirds of healthcare workers think that Americans aren’t taking enough precautions to keep us safe
Among those surveyed, 61% report that their mental health has been negatively impacted by COVID. Additionally, 49% report their physical health has been negatively impacted. Our relationships are suffering, as well, with about 40% of us saying that COVID has negatively impacted our friendships. We’re burned out (55%), anxious (49%), angry (21%), and have considered leaving healthcare (29%) as a result of COVID. We’ve worked under the most extreme circumstances without sufficient resources all the while being short-staffed and still managed to maintain a sense of hope (Kirzinger, Kearney, Hamel, & Brodie, 2021).
In the world of mental health, we’ve seen an influx of front-line healthcare workers seeking services for behavioral health disorders as well as substance use disorders. Despite the increase in people seeking services, there’s still about 20% of us who identified that we needed mental health services but didn’t receive them (Kirzinger, Kearney, Hamel, & Brodie, 2021). This might be related to the stigma surrounding seeking mental health treatment or the fear of repercussions if we speak out (for example, the loss of our professional license or our standing in the organization) (Søvold, et al., 2021)
What can we do?
After hearing my colleague share what she’s done to try and protect her mental health (and believe me, she’s doing a wonderful job…), I realized that some of us might not even know where to start. A friend of mine, Heather, an emergency room nurse for over 6 years, related her experience in the following quote:
Over the next several weeks, I’ll be taking a dive into 8 dimensions of wellness and ways we can boost our own wellness. In the interim, for all my healthcare worker colleagues, I want you to remember a few things:
It’s OK to not be OK – our bodies are NOT meant to be in crisis mode for this long.
Self-care is selfless, NOT selfish – it sometimes feels really selfish when we take care of ourselves. A lot of time we’re so busy thinking about everyone else that we put ourselves on the back burner. But practicing self-care is one of the most selfless things you can do for everyone in your life. When we take time out to recharge our batteries, we can return to our responsibilities with a new perspective. We can then be the best family member, friend, and healthcare worker we can be.
Practice self-compassion – we’re all doing the best we can in the most difficult circumstances. Take breaks from work when you can, even during your shift.
Validate your feelings – this is a once in a century pandemic. We don’t have a frame of reference to compare this to so we might wonder if what we’re feeling is valid. As you can see from the statistics above, you are not alone. Many of us are struggling so validate your experience and your feelings and go easy on yourself.
Find ways to take care of yourself – engage in healthy activities that bring you peace and joy. Learn what your triggers are and use your support system. Do your best to avoid unhealthy coping mechanisms (alcohol, drugs, overspending, avoiding your feelings, etc.)
And finally… reach out if you need help...
Does your healthcare organization have an employee assistance program? They’re there to help you. If you enter EAP services voluntarily, your information is legally protected under HIPAA laws so your employer cannot access that information (unless you divulge something that is a mandatory report).
How about your state professional licensing boards? Your state department of health? Do they have support groups available? Here in New Jersey, there’s the Heal NJ Healthcare Workers network: (https://healhealthcareworkers.com/support-groups/) There’s also the Nurse2Nurse network offering peer-run individual and group support: (https://nurse2nursenj.com/)
What can you do?
For the non-healthcare workers who love us, you can help, too. Heather summed it up quite well with the following words:
“Stop with the hero stuff and get educated on (your) health issues, follow (your) trusted healthcare professionals’ recommendations on how to care for (your)selves and (your) loved ones, and make that a priority. If people would just value themselves and their loved ones more by doing that, it would be the best gift you could ever give us.”
Show us that you care. Check in with us. I can assure you, most of us do NOT want to talk about COVID, or our jobs, or politics. We might want to talk about our kids, or our dogs, or our cats (or nothing at all). We might want to get away to the mountains or the beach. We might want to have a quiet game night with friends or a night out with our significant other. Invite us to join you on a walk. Offer to watch our kids so we can get out alone for a while to clear our head. Asking us how we’re doing means the world to us. Just let us know that you love us and you’ll be there when we’re ready. And don’t be insulted if we can’t get back to you right away. Remember:
“Drowning is a quiet, desperate thing” ~Brenna Twohy
Kirzinger, A., Kearney, A., Hamel, L., & Brodie, M. (2021). The Toll of the Coronavirus Pandemic on Health Care Workers. Kaiser Family Foundation. Retrieved from https://www.kff.org/report-section/kff-the-washington-post-frontline-health-care-workers-survey-toll-of-the-pandemic/?utm_campaign=KFF-2021-polling-surveys&utm_medium=email&_hsmi=2&_hsenc=p2ANqtz-_O1wzC3EysCZIKW0kCMDZpbV6oLd5xwx4CIkuyY3sw3HY_IWeElYAKCkK_a
Søvold, L. E., Naslund, J. A., Kousoulis, A. A., Saxena, S., Qoronfleh, M. W., Grobler, C., & Münter, L. (2021, May 7). Prioritizing the Mental Health and Well-Being of Healthcare Workers: An Urgent Global Public Health Priority. (S. K. Kar, Ed.) Frontiers in Public Health, 9. doi:10.3389/fpubh.2021.679397