Covid-19: Making Mental Health Support the New Normal
Author’s note: The Covid-19 series is a series of articles related to the current pandemic.
The global pandemic has uncovered many ‘hidden’ crises in the healthcare system. Apart from PPE (personal protective equipment) supply and ventilator numbers, the mental health of healthcare workers is being highlighted as well.
Healthcare worker burnout is not an uncommon condition. Prior to the pandemic, it is well documented and frequently raised by mental health advocates. Due to the nature of the profession (as well as stigma), it is not something that is ‘natural’ to discuss, even among healthcare workers. But Covid-19 has put that conversation right in front of us.
Mental health support during this pandemic has slowly but surely gained attention. Many healthcare institutions started to provide basic mental health support and continued to do so throughout this ongoing pandemic. But it should not only be ‘normal’ during a crisis. Healthcare is an extremely mentally exhausting field. Therefore, mental health support should be a perfectly acceptable, accessible and stigma-free service for healthcare workers.
This article will highlight 3 key areas which can form a framework for continuous mental health support, even after the Covid-19 pandemic is over.
Access to counselling
The first is access to counselling. Many healthcare institutions have started to provide this service. However, not many healthcare workers use it. Partly due to time constraints, or lack of psychologists and/or psychiatrists to attend to both patients and staff. One of the way institutions or administrators can help is to allocate a protected time or session in a week for healthcare workers to seek counselling. This protected session will make counselling more accessible for healthcare workers.
The key is to cultivate a culture of seeking help for mental health issues. Institutions and administrators must play an active role to encourage participation from healthcare workers by facilitating the service and removing the stigma. I believe this is the first step for mental health support to be accepted as the norm.
Peer support is crucial to the mental health of healthcare workers. Many of us face the same problems, worries and stress but afraid to share our concerns. A peer support network, specifically trained by mental health workers can provide a continuous support system for healthcare workers.
This can be done via a telephone call or through face to face meetings, similar to group therapy sessions. Healthcare workers need to know that many others have similar concerns or issues, and peer support is one way to share the burden.
One of the added benefits of a peer support network is to break down the hierarchical nature of the workplace. It gives an opportunity for healthcare workers of all levels to understand better the situation and concerns of their superiors, peers and subordinates. Thus fostering a better working relationship and environment.
The last part of the framework is awareness or mindfulness training. The healthcare sector is a hectic working environment, there is not much time to stop and take a breather. Self-awareness is crucial to allow healthcare workers to assess the mental status of themselves. It will also help to identify trigger factors much earlier, so appropriate intervention or help can be rendered.
Awareness training is not only useful during working hours. Many healthcare workers work beyond the official office hours and often bring their work back home. Balancing work and family/leisure time is not easy. Awareness training can be a continuous self-monitoring system for mental health.
Bringing it together
Ensuring accessible counselling, organising peer support network and conducting awareness training takes up resources. And all of these areas need to gel together to function. Creating a specific department or unit within the healthcare institution will greatly help in administrating matters.
The department can work closely with psychologists/psychiatrists to work out a schedule or session for healthcare workers. It could also ‘match’ the staff when they seek peer support. And lastly, to coordinate the instructors for awareness training. All of these are inter-related and will need each area to work together to achieve a sustainable and productive mental health support system.
The new norm
Healthcare workers are often lauded as unflinching heroes and because of this perceived aura of invincibility and societal expectations, many are afraid to seek help. Or even acknowledge that they need help. This mindset is counterproductive, yet it seems to be familiar across the world.
Covid-19 has opened the door and showed the world that healthcare workers need the mental health support. The next step is to show that it is perfectly acceptable and should be the new norm.