Battling the mental health crisis for medical workers on the front lines of the COVID-19 pandemic

Coronavirus Updates

SALT LAKE COUNTY (ABC4 News) – The tragic news of Dr. Lorna Breen who took her own life after working directly with COVID-19 patients at a New York City hospital is a sobering reminder of the emotional burden our healthcare workers face on the front lines of COVID-19.

“It was devastating to hear about this event and I think it’s a reminder to all of us that this is a time of incredible commitment and courage among healthcare workers, but also of considerable stress,” said Dr. Morissa Henn, Community Health Director for Intermountain Healthcare. “Suicides among physicians and other clinicians is very rare. But even one suicide among any member of our community, let alone a clinician is devastating.”

Critical Care Tech Skyler Gardner lost his life to suicide in March 2018

Here in Utah, this type of tragedy is nothing new for Intermountain Healthcare who lost one of their own, Critical Care Tech Skyler Gardner to suicide two years ago. Since then, they’ve worked towards creating a culture that reduces the stigma of asking for help.

“People working in these positions have an incredible opportunity to engage in meaningful work. But none of us are immune to the psychological and emotional struggles that come with dealing with life or death issues on the frontline,” said Dr. Henn.

She added, “They are encouraged to ask for help, knowing that if they need time off in order to take a break from the intensity of their careers and have someone else step in, that it’s normal and encouraged.”

The COVID-19 pandemic has brought new and unique burdens to healthcare workers that they don’t normally deal with on a daily basis. During a time when they may typically lean on family and friends for emotional support, some have to physically separate themselves from them for fear of passing on the virus.

Sydney Shiba, a respiratory therapist at Intermountain McKay-Dee Hospital

Sydney Shiba, a respiratory therapist at Intermountain McKay-Dee Hospital, held back tears as she explained to ABC4 News through a video call the emotional toll the novel coronavirus outbreak has had not only on her mental health, but her fellow brothers and sisters on the front lines.

“It was really sad. I have a lot of friends that went to the front lines and just reading the Facebook post about it, I just couldn’t imagine,” she said.

She shared that she’s recently experienced anxiety since the pandemic took off in Utah.

“It’s definitely been scary. I think the scariest part is going to work everyday and not knowing what to expect cause we’ve been told it might spike. We might get overrun,” she said.

Shiba said one of the most difficult emotional experiences for her is being one of the last persons that some patients see before they pass from COVID-19 in scenarios where it may be unsafe for loved ones to visit one last time.

“We run the ventilators. We run life support. We’ve had to turn it off on people before. But turning them off without the patient’s family there is really hard,” she said. “Sometimes you have to turn your emotions off at work because you have to do hard things to save these people. When your emotions come back, it hits you even harder.”

Shiba said she takes care of her mental health by confiding in her coworkers and loved ones, being diligent about staying clean, going out in nature to go reel/fly fishing, and unplugging from social media.

“I’ve deleted my Facebook a couple times, just because I don’t want to be constantly reminded about COVID. It’s my job. I get it at work. I get it in my e-mails,” she said. “I don’t want to go home and read about it or see the protests [about reopening the economy]. It’s just a lot.”

Dr. Henn said to maintain their employees’ mental well-being, Intermountain Healthcare has trained department leaders on how to spot red flags or possible symptoms among team members.

“This biggest thing is looking out for people who may not seem themselves. Their behavior has changed. Perhaps they’re even talking about wanting to die or looking for a way to kill themselves. It may seem like a joking matter. But it’s actually a call for help,” she said.

She said employees are encourage to speak up or check up on their colleagues when they suspect something may be wrong.

“It’s really incumbent on all of us to be mental health first responders. That requires first and foremost, being aware of the people around us but also being aware of when we, ourselves might need to be doing some extra outreach,” said Dr. Henn.

She went on to say, “We need to ask, ‘How are you?’ or even asking the question, ‘Are you thinking about suicide?’ It may seem unusual or uncomfortable. But research shows asking that question is often exactly what people want and what they need.”

Intermountain also offers multiple resources for free through their Employee Assistance Program such as self-care apps, mindfulness classes, suicide prevention training, psychological first aid, and a new emotional relief hotline which is also available to the public.

Dr. Henn recommends several ways for healthcare workers to focus on self-care such as exercise, mindfulness activities, limiting exposure to the news or social media, and confiding in people you trust.

Intermountain’s Emergency Relief Hotline is available to anyone for free, 7 days a week, from 10 a.m. to 10 p.m. at 833-442-2211.

If you or someone you know needs help, there’s the 24/7 National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 1-800-273-8255. For more information, visit utahsuicideprevention.org.

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