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Caring for those who care for us: How the mental health of healthcare workers is being addressed

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Posted at 6:16 PM, May 18, 2022

LORAIN COUNTY, Ohio — The COVID-19 pandemic has taken a toll on the mental health of people all over the world, including those in the healthcare industry. Here in Northeast Ohio, there's a push to encourage both those in the industry and those preparing to enter the industry to focus on self-care.

At Mount Vernon Nazarene University, Judy Gregg—RN, DNP, and chair of the school's nursing department—understands the impact the pandemic had on healthcare workers.

"I think if you ask 100 nurses, 90 of them would say that they were ready to leave the profession the other can't financially. They're going to stick it out for retirement or whatever that may be," Gregg said. "They're feeling demoralized. So they've got lack of sleep and chronic exhaustion. They're irritable. They feel unappreciated."

Seeing the toll the pandemic took on nurses, doctors, and others in the industry, Gregg is instructing her students to take care of themselves as well, focusing on improving their mental health.

"We're the worst about taking care of ourselves. We're the last one to go to the doctor or the last one to call off sick or the last one to take care of our mental health and we really need to put that first," Gregg said. "They need to feel value themselves in it's okay to expect to be appreciated for the work you do and seek out the help you need."

The professor said that some of the ways the industry can improve the mental health of professionals are by giving them space to care for themselves.

"It's okay to set boundaries, say no to that extra shift—people feel very guilty in nursing, going 'well I know if I don't go in we're going to be working short and those are my people,' but it's okay. You need to take care of yourself. You need to have that work-life balance," Gregg said. "So just take a step back reevaluate, and then regroup and refocus and come back stronger."

The push for mental health awareness is also being seen in those already in the industry. At the Cleveland Clinic, numerous resources have been provided to those who need them.

"Early on in the pandemic we launched a 24/7 grief and relief hotline, as well as a COVID hotline to support caregivers throughout the course of the pandemic with our Caring for Caregivers department, which provides counseling and support services at no cost confidentially to caregivers," said Dr. Amy Freadling, Executive Director of Caring for Caregivers Program at Cleveland Clinic. "We've had other resources launched as well, including peer support programs, moral distress debriefs."

Freadling said that it's common for healthcare workers to forget to give themselves time to rest and decompress—leading to a potential decline in the state of their mental health.

"One of the greatest gifts that we have as being healthcare professionals is that we can help others we have purpose we have meaning in the work that we do. But we have to balance that with time for renewal to rest and repair," Freadling said.

On the public health side, mental health has taken its toll as well. Lorain County Public Health Commissioner Mark Adams said many people left the industry during the pandemic because of the stress they faced.

"We lost 10% of our workforce during the two years of the pandemic," Adams said. "And there there is burnout because you didn't realize that when you were doing 12-13 hour days 20 straight days in that month with or without a break. You didn't realize it were burning yourself out."

Adams has been getting out in the community to educate youth on public health, not only to share knowledge on the important topic but to introduce students to the industry in hopes that it will encourage more people to pursue careers in health and healthcare, and also create understanding between the public and professionals.

"We were burning so fast and so bright, we didn't the system itself, sort of that breaking down, that daily breaking down, it was happening so gradually," Adams said. "If we realize that we, too, need that help it might help us better help those citizens that are coming in, that maybe aren't happy, and being able to realize 'I can make a difference and I can still make a difference. And my job here is extremely important,'" Adams said.

Those leading the charge for mental health awareness in the healthcare industry say the key across the board is simple—allow people space to care for themselves, because in the long run, it will help them better care for themselves, and maybe even boost the number of people deciding to join the workforce, or remain in the profession.

"I think every time that we take care of our caregivers and caregivers, in turn, take care of themselves., there's a greater potential that the caregiver can, in turn, be more successful in taking care of patients," Freadling said. 'Less risk of burnout, more engagement, more alertness and energy to do the work. And so not only are we helping our caregivers but really, in turn, their patients as well."

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