Guilt is a prevailing theme
Guilt also is a common emotion among health care workers, said psychiatrist Tia Konzer, DO, of Charlotte, N.C. “The ones on the front line question whether they were able to do enough to save someone or if they could have done more. Those of us not on the front lines feel guilty that we’re not there with our colleagues, that we don’t face the same fears and are in the safety of our outpatient clinics.”
The focus on social distancing is creating its own strains, she said. “A lot of people are recognizing the power of human touch and how comforting that is,” she said. “The healers aren’t able to comfort the loved ones of the deceased, and we’re not able to comfort each other. And people are having a hard time not being able to hug their kids and their spouses, having to ward off their kids when they come home or avoid them until they’ve showered.”
How can mental health professionals be most helpful to health care workers in need? The simple act of listening is crucial, several such professionals said in interviews.
“Your main job is to bear witness to their experiences and to hear their story, then secondarily to make sure they have a basic self-care plan to recover from what they’re doing each day,” said psychologist Leah Welch, PhD, of the Scripps Health network in San Diego. “Don’t talk too much or try to give advice too quickly before you’ve listened to what the caregiver has shared. They’re accumulating small traumas and need time and space to sort them out, and that takes patience and a listening ear on the part of the provider. Rushing in too quickly with advice deprives them of making sense of their own experience.”
She added that “they should also be thanked for what they’re doing, because it requires skill, empathy, and courage. They are being heroic, and they need to know they’re appreciated by those of us not on the front lines for what they’re putting themselves through.”
Partnerships are forming
At Zuckerberg San Francisco General Hospital and Trauma Center, psychiatry chief Lisa Fortuna, MD, MPH, MDiv, said her team has had success by working closely with the hospital’s chaplains. “A lot of the staff are not saying: ‘We’re stressing out; help us.’ The chaplains had starting rounding, asking how they’re doing, and they’d open up because there was already a relationship. The chaplains are very well trained in dealing with being support for people under situations of death, loss, and immediate stress.”
The chaplains themselves became overwhelmed, and the hospital responded by reaching out to bring in more chaplains. The psychiatry team, meanwhile, worked to partner with the chaplains to provide a continuum of support for staff. “We have an opportunity to build on the trust that they have,” said Dr. Fortuna, who is an ordained Episcopal minister. “They’re the perfect partners.”
What happens now? Dr. Fortuna has seen the long-term aftermath of a crisis. She previously worked in Massachusetts and helped to support health care workers in that state after the Boston Marathon bombing.
She cautioned that health care workers may first run on adrenaline in a crisis, spurred by “heroic high energy.” But then, the full extent of the tragedy begins to set in, and they start to process their feelings. “You have to keep people going through those phases,” she said.
Going forward, she said, “there will be a prolonged tail of stress,” especially if virus outbreaks recur. “We’ll have a long time enduring this.”