Supporting mental health of front-line health professionals

By Arthur C. Evans Jr

Every night, thousands of New Yorkers step out on their balconies and break into a round of applause as the city’s nurses, doctors and other healthcare professionals head home from work. This new tradition underscores the fact that New Yorkers and many others across the country understand that healthcare professionals are putting their own health and that of their family members at risk to help us survive COVID-19. It is also recognition that in many cases, these professionals are suffering through a private agony as they juggle scarce PPE, and resources like ventilators that keep their patients alive.

 are here to help
Years of psychological research on trauma, depression, and anxiety provide a great deal of information on how to help healthcare professionals cope with the overwhelming emotions they may be feeling during the COVID-19 crisis. Psychologists across the U.S. have been using these findings in programs designed to provide mental health support to healthcare workers. Research tells us that human connection is healing, and many of these programs include personal contact with a psychologist or mental health professional, including:

  • Resilience trainings that allow medical professionals to learn how to spot signs of stress in themselves and in their team members. Typically, these trainings come with a resilience roadmap, which outlines coping mechanisms for medical personnel as they work with patients.
  • Support groups that are being hosted by psychologists, usually at least once a week, allowing medical staff to share their concerns about COVID-19, their work, family, and other stressors. Psychologists lead the calls and provide evidence-based guidance to participants. Many of these groups are online, but some are in person in hospital units that are operating.
  • One-on-one support sessions that are made available by psychologists to help individuals on the front lines. These online meetings are not formal therapy sessions. Rather, they are focused on providing participants with support and coping mechanisms. Psychologists can encourage participants to seek additional help should the need arise.

Psychologists associated with hospitals and healthcare facilities are working closely with administrators to provide mental health support to frontline healthcare professionals. Examples include:

  • Embedding psychologists in key meetings to advise administrators on behavior change strategies, staff wellness, or communication. For example, psychologists on hospital ethics committees help physicians and administrators navigate challenging decisions when resources are too low. At one medical center, a psychologist encouraged administrators to send short motivational notes to staff through a newly developed newsletter called “Breath of Fresh Air.”
  • Deploying psychologists to departments throughout the hospital or medical facility to talk with those on the front lines during staff meetings and offer support during the staff’s time of need. This allows psychologists to gauge how well healthcare professionals on the front lines are doing, so that the psychologists and administrators can adjust their support accordingly.
  • Emphasizing the importance of good mental health and encouraging staff to take advantage of the mental health support that is available to them. Many administrators are mindful that their employees could have mental healthcare needs well beyond this crisis, as many of them could grapple with PTSD or moral injuries.

Online resources for frontline healthcare professionals
Healthcare professionals can also develop their own coping mechanisms by taking the following steps:

  • Review the wealth of information on the American Psychological Association website. Our website includes tips for coping during the COVID-19 crisis, including a list of seven research findings that can help medical professionals during this pandemic.
  • Tap resources that have been posted online by other hospitals and healthcare facilities. For example, McClaren Health Care in Michigan provides online information for healthcare providers. The information covers everything from assessing stress levels to explaining how to relieve stress during these difficult times.
  • Seek professional mental health support. Healthcare professionals who find that their stress is unmanageable, or they are not functioning effectively should consider scheduling an appointment with a psychologist or another mental health professional. The stress of the current pandemic could trigger a recurrence of a past mental or physical health problem, or lead to new ones, such as trauma, depression, anxiety, and compassion fatigue, which may require more support than an employer can provide. Potential first steps are requesting an appointment through your employer’s Employee Assistance Program, talking with your family doctor or checking your insurance company’s list of mental health providers.

Call to Action
As a society, we must commit to care for the physical AND mental health of our frontline healthcare workers. During this pandemic, we are applying a population health framework to disseminate and implement mental health tools and knowledge across the country. Psychological researchers are developing even better coping strategies for this crisis and for future ones. We encourage every public official, every healthcare executive, and every healthcare provider to prioritize not just physical safety and wellness, but also mental wellbeing during and after this crisis.

Arthur J Evans is CEO and executive vice president of the American Psychological Association.