The Mental Toll of COVID-19: Providing Mental Health Support on the Frontline
Health care workers are center stage in this once-in-a-lifetime crisis, and their exposure to COVID-19 is more than just physical. The challenges that come with delivering care to high-risk and highly contagious patients cannot be understated. It’s difficult to track, but CDC reports suggest that upwards of 20% of COVID-19 reported cases are health care workers. Despite these odds, frontline workers (including physicians, nurses, techs, and custodians) have upheld their duties, demonstrating a level of bravery and fortitude that is nothing short of remarkable.
A common and sometimes resentment-inducing theme in COVID-19 conversations is that there are silver linings. One silver lining is the recognition that we need better infrastructure to support health care workers. This doesn’t just mean a well-stocked inventory of N95 masks—it means a robust and proactive mental health support system. We can do better. Fortunately, some health systems already are.
Here at Penn, the Penn Medicine Workforce Wellness Committee and Department of Psychiatry launched a program that provides frontline workers mental health support, which is part of a larger suite of curated behavioral health options for Penn employees. Emily Becker-Haimes and Courtney Benjamin Wolk, who are psychologists and assistant professors in the Center for Mental Health, developed the COVID Coaching model in collaboration with the Wellness Committee. The program ensures easy access to mental health support for frontline workers, providing them an outlet to work through the daily challenges they face.
According to Dr. Wolk, “Penn Medicine’s COVID Coaching program is based on the Psychological First Aid model. Our coaches are trained to support the Penn Community as they cope with the myriad of challenges or stressors they may be experiencing during the pandemic.” Dr. Becker-Haimes added, “We are hopeful that our coaches will fill a critical role within the larger, ongoing efforts to support the mental health care of the Penn Community. Coaches provide tailored, individual support that can range from lending a listening ear, to fostering individual resiliency, to facilitating access to other available resources or connecting someone with professional mental health care. Coaching can be a particularly great resource for someone looking for support but who is not sure whether they want or need formal therapy.”
The current rates of morbidity and mortality in hospitals may be trauma-inducing for frontline workers—but for some, this isn’t a new feeling. Frontline workers routinely treat gunshot victims (and continue to). They provide both medical and emotional support to terminal patients, not to mention their loved ones. They regularly confront the results of injustices and disenfranchisement that overflow into the health care system. And then they do it again. The promise of programs like COVID Coaching is that they could have a positive impact after the pandemic as well.
History has a way of falling through the cracks and, for most of us, it will be relatively easy to move past this pandemic when we return to our normal lives. But lest we forget—without a robust health care workforce, the damage of COVID-19 would have been far worse. Frontline workers have had our back through it all; we need to return the favor. To that end, let’s remember the mental toll that frontline workers have endured and will continue to endure and identify the best ways to support them in a sustainable way.
Copyright © 2020, Penn Center for Mental Health.