How COVID-19 is affecting the mental health of frontline workers

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RALEIGH, N.C. (WNCN) — Just trying to get through an extremely long shift and face all that is coming with the fight against COVID-19 will likely have long-lasting effects on many healthcare workers.

Kit Nowell is a family therapist in Raleigh who specializes in trauma.

She says, “being in these sorts of situations for long extended periods can lead to chronic and complicated PTSD. They’re having to deal with situations they’ve not had to deal with before. People dying in isolation and alone, not being able to allow families access, they are vicariously experiencing the trauma that the families are on top of their own trauma. At a time when the rest of us kind of complain that we’re stuck at home or try to re-frame it ‘safe at home’. They don’t get to be safe at home”.

 “All these situations can exert significant stress on a nurse’s mental health,” says Holly Wei.

Wei is a nursing professor at East Carolina University. She’s currently surveying nurses about what they’re experiencing during the COVID-19 crisis.

They are raising concerns about the lack of personal protective equipment and are worried about getting infected and taking that infection home to their own families.

“We didn’t sign up to be a hero. We signed up to help others. So these are times we will stand up to help others. I know the PPE is an issue and so many other areas it’s not optimal. However, our heart to help others. The heart will not change will not deter” says Wei.

Both Wei and Nowell encourage healthcare workers to lean on each other, look for the positive and don’t be afraid to ask for help.

“As nurses, it’s so much easier for us to offer help than receiving help,” says Wei.

She adds that it’s important “to really look at it as temporary look at all situations as temporary and to see we can get through this. If we work together we can get through this and it’s going to be better tomorrow.”

Wei also advises nurses to talk to one another.

“With fellow nurses, you are together and you just really dialogue at the peer level. So that might be helpful. Nurturing kindness is both for ourselves and for others helping one another. One repeating theme that I found was supporting one another and really having teamwork. I like to give this example. If you look at something like blue a blue dot you just take all of that in and when you close your eyes I ask you what do you see. You see the blue dot. I say tell me something red and you can’t because we all focus on the blue and we miss all the red. So what that means is if we only focus on the negative and what our brain registers are negativity. Even though we cannot control the situation it’s hard for us. Find something positive like the patient is getting better or if they need help that you offered a hand. The small things. Our lives are full of small things, not huge things in our life it’s all small things. Pick up the parts that are really inspiring and make you feel like this is a good day,” says Wei.

Nowell also says it’s important to remember to take a moment and to breathe.

“So they’re putting themselves at great risk they’re putting their families at risk. Some of them don’t even see their families because of that risk. So there’s increased isolation when they’re not at work. Their sleep patterns are impacted and we know how important it is for us to get the sleep that we need especially when we’re under stress. It’s really important to remember that we are biological bodies that we are mammals and that we need to breathe. When our systems get into these heightened states of vigilance we often forget to do that. When you can grab the moments just breathe.Very simple techniques that can really help calm that fight or flight response. If you take a breath and count to four and then exhale for seven you may exhale a little longer and do that for a few minutes to reset. Nowell adds that it’s important to seek help if you need it saying- “there is a big stigma around mental health in our society and it takes so much courage to ask for help but I’m hoping people will realize that we’re all in this boat together now”.

Click here to read Professor Wei’s latest article on self-care. 

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