Mental Health Monday: How doctors cope with pandemic stress

Original Reporting

(WSPA) – For more than a year frontline healthcare workers have battled the pandemic, saving lives while trying to stay physically and mentally healthy.

South Carolina confirmed its first case of COVID-19 in early March 2020. Within a month it was diagnosed in all 46 counties.

Each afternoon brought new numbers and, for hospital staff, more patients. Each one brought a new test for people like St. Francis Intensive Care Pulmonologist Julia Payne.

“Right at the beginning, we could feel the uptick in urgency or illness of our patients and we wondered how is this affecting us,” Payne said. She and her team were always on the front lines and the pandemic, with so much daily suffering and death, has clearly taken a toll.

“There are definitely times in the last year when we either lost a colleague or fought extremely hard for someone and not had the outcome that we wanted,” Payne added. “Then it has been a silent place and those days have been our most difficult.”

Payne noticed she’d had trouble sleeping. Other staff battled anxiety, depression and stress. The pandemic itself became a form of trauma. Now, the way Upstate hospitals dealt with that emotional burden provides a blueprint for a post-pandemic recovery.

Stephanie John manages the employee assistance program at Prisma Health. She notes the pandemic provides an opportunity to destigmatize common metal health stressors.

“If there is anything to be thankful for with COVID, its that it feels like its a safe thing to talk about. That COVID has affected our wellbeing and it’s ok to talk about that. So that’s a great place to start, how has COVID impacted your life?” John said. Healthcare workers, like so many people, can fall victim to a kind of comparative suffering. That is, dismissing all the ways the pandemic affected them because so many others have had it worse.

By simply asking “How has the pandemic affected you?” therapists, like John, have found a way to get people talking about trauma.

“Having a unified experience of the world going through a pandemic can give us a sense of community where it’s safe to say, this impacted me now, how it impacted you may be different from your neighbor, your coworker, but having permission to say COVID has impacted me,” John said. John says Prisma’s employee helpline is now available 24/7 in multiple languages. They’ve launched an app and self-guided resources for employees more reluctant to share. She says the number of first time users is growing.

St. Francis has similar resources, often led by hospital chaplains who lead the listening on every floor.

“When we looked for meaning, and that’s part of the human condition, what we fell back on was our faith,” said Bon Secours Vice President of Mission Alex Garvey.

St. Francis has weekly debriefs with certified counselors and, without visitors, the waiting areas became quiet rooms, filled with quiet music.

Most important was the growing awareness of mental health.

Doctor Payne started exercising more, which reduced stress and made it easier to sleep. She, like thousands of her colleagues, will still need time to heal.

“Having seen the amount of suffering and sadness that we have in the past year, I think we’ll all carry with us a lot of heartbreak and that will take time to heal and there are stories that will be with us for the rest of our lives,” Payne said.

Copyright 2021 Nexstar Media Inc. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten, or redistributed.

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