COVID-19: Helping health care workers on front lines


Don’t forget the self-care

There was a time during the pandemic when Dr. Cotton had become so overwhelmed by anxiety that she called the Physician Support Line to get some support from fellow psychiatrists.

“I thought, ‘Why not?’” she recalled. “I helped create the hotline. Why wouldn’t I call it?”

The calls took only a few minutes but they made a difference to Dr. Cotton, who had been severely ill with what she believed was an unconfirmed case of the novel coronavirus. “I immediately felt more like I improved my outlook by focusing on what I could control,” she said, “and accepting the things I could not control.”

Many psychiatrists are finding themselves in similar situations. Fortunately, colleagues are highlighting ways for psychiatrists to care for themselves just as they care for patients.

“One of the challenges clinicians are facing is that they are living through a shared experience in this global pandemic with their patients right now,” said psychologist Randi Pochtar, PhD, who is managing support groups for front-line workers at NYU Langone Health in New York City. “Some might find the work to be overwhelming and anxiety-inducing, and others might find their work to be helpful in managing their own anxiety and stress about the pandemic and its impact.”

Dr. Cotton said her breaking points came when she felt panic amid the pandemic. “I had watched too much news, and I’d seen protesters not taking it seriously, and I was scared for my family and myself. I just needed to feel like someone heard me feeling that way.”

The calls to the hotline were helpful, she said, and so was sharing news about her illness with friends. “So many people reached out to me and checked in on me, people I haven’t seen in years, and that was immensely helpful,” she said.

This sort of personal exposure may not come naturally to physicians and nurses, she said. “We don’t seek that kind of attention when we’re ill. Instead, we say: ‘I’m fine; how are you doing?’ That’s what we do every day of our lives at work.”

How can clinicians help themselves and one another? “Clinicians in our practice have been coping and supporting each other through peer supervision, connecting with colleagues in team meetings, and simply checking in on one another,” said Dr. Pochtar. “In addition, we can adopt many of the strategies that we are likely recommending to our patients, such as maintaining routines as much as possible, engaging in regular exercise, eating well and consistently, and connecting with friends and family.”

Managers can play important roles, said Dr. Fortuna. “I’ve been checking in with my faculty, being as supportive as I can be and highlighting the extraordinary things that people are doing, like going from zero to 100 percent in setting up telehealth.”

Dr. Konzer offered another perspective on recognizing the value of the work that psychiatrists are doing. “We’re on the front line of helping heal the front line, and in that responsibility comes an additional stress,” she said. “But there’s an additional gift of being able to contribute where we are most beneficial. We can try to be present now, versus worrying about what may happen or what lies ahead, and appreciate the beauty in the helpers and the small joys of life.”

Dr. Cotton, Dr. Berkowitz, Dr. Konzer, Dr. Welch, Dr. Fortuna, and Dr. Pochtar reported no relevant disclosures.


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