Minnesota COVID Nurse Prays Psychological Scars Will Heal
“COVID has completely changed my life,” said Allen, a Cottage Grove nurse who worked with coronavirus patients for a year. “My God, did it leave a few scars on me. I pray that one day they will heal. “
For many frontline health professionals and nurses, the coronavirus pandemic is far from over – and it’s taking a terrible toll.
Recent studies by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, the Kaiser Family Foundation, and other groups have found that during the pandemic, more than half of health workers suffered from negative mental symptoms – from stress and fatigue to depression, anxiety, and even Thoughts of suicide.
These symptoms can often be made worse by concerns about their physical health and that of their families from exposure to COVID-19.
It’s a national, even global, struggle, and health officials, advocates, and workers say it makes an impact here in Minnesota.
Allen was a nurse in two COVID-19 intensive care units in St. Paul, first at St. Joseph’s and then at Bethesda Hospital. “Unfortunately I saw the sickest of the sick,” she said.
Patients, young and old, we are constantly fighting for their lives. Some lost the battle.
“The mental toll it has taken on me and some of my co-workers has been something … I never thought I would be here and feel the way I feel,” she said. “It gets to the point where you feel helpless.”
Eventually, Allen sought counseling and was diagnosed with post-traumatic stress disorder. She shares her experiences to encourage others with similar problems to seek help.
“I don’t want people to feel sorry for me,” she said. “I needed help and I got it.”
But Allen says it shouldn’t have been so difficult for her to get help. She believes the health system does not have enough support to help workers who face trauma on a daily basis.
During the pandemic, patients always came first, but self-care was often neglected.
“If anything, we have to learn from our mistakes here,” said Allen. “It’s hard because you’re so busy with so many things, yourself is an afterthought.”
Access isn’t the only problem. Nicole Mattson, vice president of Care Providers of Minnesota, who works to help long-term care workers access mental health services, says convincing health workers they need help can be difficult.
“We have found that health workers are not good at asking for help or accepting resources,” Mattson said. “You are naturally used to putting others first.”
What workers say
There have been a number of surveys conducted by national authorities on groups of health workers and the impact of the pandemic on their mental health. Findings were broadly similar for workers suffering from stress, fatigue, burnout, depression, substance abuse, and thoughts of suicide.
Here are more details:
- The CDC found that more than half of the public health workers surveyed had symptoms of mental health impairment. Symptoms included depression, anxiety, and PTSD with a small number of thoughts about suicide.
- A survey by the Kaiser Family Foundation and the Washington Post found that 62 percent of health care workers surveyed said the stress of dealing with the pandemic is having a negative impact on their mental health.
- Mental Health America found that 75 percent of health workers surveyed experienced physical and emotional exhaustion and burnout in the workplace. The same percentage worried about infecting their children and family members.
- Another CDC poll found that 70 percent of parents and unpaid adult caregivers had mental health problems.
What are the causes?
Sue Abderholden, executive director of the National Alliance on Mental Illness-Minnesota, said the pandemic was a stressful event for almost everyone. Worry, insecurity, and upside-down routines have been tough for people across the board.
“We all just went through a pretty traumatic experience,” said Abderholden. “We’re all in the same ocean, just in different boats.”
However, health workers have faced unprecedented illnesses and deaths in addition to typical pandemic battles.
“For them to keep going there and seeing these deaths and doing all they can without really knowing how best to help people. It’s just very tough, ”said Abderholden.
She noted that the pandemic had a more serious impact on communities of color, including those who work in healthcare – including their mental health. This is another reason the state needs to do more to diversify the ranks of its mental health care workers.
Dr. Ruth Lynfield, state epidemiologist for the Minnesota Department of Health, said misinformation, threats and bullying have also placed a burden on health workers. The CDC survey of public health workers found that a quarter of respondents felt threatened in some way because of their work.
“We’re used to being under the radar,” Lynfield said of public health workers. But suddenly they were under intense public scrutiny, who often did not like the strategies they recommended to contain the outbreak.
“It’s hard when you’re tired and burned out. They don’t have the same strength, ”said Lynfield. “We know ways to reduce the transmission of this virus. It’s hard when there are people who just don’t care. “
What can be done to help
Kathryn Como-Sabetti, the head of COVID-19 epidemiology at the state health ministry, said the pandemic had made it clear that many public health establishments lack sufficient resources to respond to a widespread pandemic.
The state has reassigned hundreds of workers to help respond to the pandemic. Smaller district authorities did not have this luxury.
“The extent of it was so much bigger than we ever imagined,” said Como-Sabetti. This can make it difficult when an employee has to take time off to deal with personal issues.
“I think what has been hard for people to say they have to resign is that they are worried that they are causing more stress to their co-workers,” she said.
Similar challenges exist in long-term care, an industry that struggled with low wages and labor shortages before the pandemic. Mattson of Care Providers of Minnesota said the time has come to reassess the importance of care providers.
“Nursing work enables other work,” she said. “There needs to be a reassessment of what it means to take care of our caregivers.”
The Minnesota Legislature recently approved new funds to strengthen the ranks of long-term care workers. There is also a working group that will decide how to distribute $ 250 million in “hero wages” to the frontline workers.
Health workers have called both efforts a “good first step” but indicate that much more needs to be done.
Employers are also working to make mental health care and other resources more readily available. Some are setting up “personal port” rooms with on-demand advisory services. Others use smartphone apps to regularly check employees to see if they need help.
However, Abderholden says employers also need to do a better job of equipping employees with the resources available. Many workers may still feel they are being discriminated against when speaking openly about their need for psychiatric treatment.
In addition, Abderholden hopes the pandemic and the challenges it poses will lead to a better understanding of mental health care and those who may be struggling.
“Really, I think there are very few people who haven’t been depressed or apprehensive about the situation for a day or two or more,” she said. “I hope there will be a lot more empathy in the future.”