As healthcare workers in Fresno and around the nation work long hours in stressful conditions during the pandemic, more than half say they’re dealing with at least one mental health condition.
That’s the key finding from an online survey of healthcare workers conducted this spring by the Centers for Disease Control.
Dawan Utecht, director of behavioral health for Fresno County, says healthcare workers are experiencing burnout, exhaustion, depression, anxiety, and hopelessness.
“Our staff have shared that they have feelings of loneliness, lack of connection, and uncertainty caused by the changing nature of the pandemic,” said Utecht. “They have also commented the difficult impact of the length of time, during the pandemic, that we have been trying to manage to continue delivering much-needed services under the constraints brought on by the pandemic.”
Health Care Worker’s Mental Health Declines
A total of 26,174 respondents made up of state public health workers, tribal, local, and territorial public health departments took the survey.
“Health/Behavioral Health care workers and first-responders are directly and intimately involved daily with individuals impacted by COVID-19, including patients, families, loved ones, and community members. These vital workers continue to be everyday heroes, conducting herculean tasks which no one could mentally prepare for in advance.” — Dawan Utecht, director, Fresno County Behavioral Health
Between March 29 and April 16, 2021, the online survey assessed symptoms of depression, anxiety, post-traumatic stress disorder, and suicidal thoughts in public health workers.
Fifty-three percent reported symptoms of at least one mental health condition during the two weeks before taking the survey. In addition, 32% reported depression, 30.3% anxiety, 36.8% PTSD, and 8.4% said they had suicidal thoughts.
Dr. Rais Vohra, the county’s interim health officer, said that he’s witnessed a need to address the mental health needs of employees in local hospitals.
“Mental health is a big issue … and that was something one of our hospitals were really struggling with earlier this week,” Vohra said during a Zoom briefing on Friday, Sept. 25. “In general it’s another recognition of here’s another ripple effect of the pandemic.”
The CDC poll found that among that mental health issues were nearly 41% more common among healthcare workers than the general population. The result: increased absenteeism, high turnover, lower productivity, and lower morale. All of these factors influence the effectiveness of public health organizations.
What’s Triggering Mental Health Issues Among Healthcare Workers?
Nearly 20% of respondents reported that their employer did not allow them to take time off. The severity of their symptoms magnified with longer work hours and spending more time dedicated to COVID-19 response and care.
Dr. Matthew Tatum, CEO of Fresno-based Sierra Meadows Behavioral Health, says his center has seen a large number of requests for services since the pandemic began. Patients young and old are experiencing anxiety and depression.
However, for police officers, medics, and firefighters, asking for mental help still carries a stigma, and first-responders were less likely to come in seeking help, Tatum said.
Utecht said that the trauma and challenges that healthcare workers and first-responders face can be difficult to handle.
“Health/Behavioral Health care workers and first-responders are directly and intimately involved daily with individuals impacted by COVID-19, including patients, families, loved ones, and community members,” said Utecht. “These vital workers continue to be everyday heroes, conducting herculean tasks which no one could mentally prepare for in advance.”
Giving Healthcare Workers a Break
Study findings suggest that during public health emergencies such as the pandemic, mental health could be improved by hiring more staff, providing flexible work schedules, and encouraging regular breaks and time off.
“Because we’re a mental health company, we put a lot of focus on our employees’ mental health because if they’re not well, then they can’t serve our patients. We try to do things for our staff in order to help them kind of keep going.” — Dr. Matthew Tatum, CEO, Sierra Meadows Behavioral Health
At Sierra Meadows, Tatum said, the pandemic has mentally taxed much of his staff, especially the therapists, who must give a lot of themselves emotionally to their patients.
“Because we’re a mental health company, we put a lot of focus on our employees’ mental health because if they’re not well, then they can’t serve our patients. We try to do things for our staff in order to help them kind of keep going,” said Tatum.
“So whether that’s regular events, like on Friday, we’re taking all of our staff bowling for a night or having a taco truck come on a weekday for free lunch for everybody. Just little things here and there to help them decompress and feel valued by us.”
Sierra Meadows has only been operational for the last three years. During that time, it has grown from 10 to 65 working staff — a likely result of the growing demand for mental health services caused by the pandemic.
“And, so a year in, is when we really started to grow, which is when the pandemic started, too, So it’s kind of hard to tell … is it the business growing or is it the pandemic or is it both?” said Tatum. “I think it’s probably both.”
Fresno County’s DBH Offers Many Mental Health Services
Utecht says most healthcare employers, including the county of Fresno, offer Employee Assistance Programs, which staff can access to get immediate, short-term mental health services, outside of a health insurance plan.
“It is tremendously important to me that everyone gets the mental health services they need,” said Utecht. “We have provided a tremendous amount of collateral information to our staff and the public about the importance of self-care, about rationing news and negative information, about choosing news sources carefully and focusing on facts versus opinions.”
Utecht says FCDPH Behavioral Department has also made strides in acquiring more help for healthcare staff and recently applied for a three-year, $2 million American Rescue Act funded grant, available through HRSA.
“These funds would be utilized to help our healthcare and first-responders build their own resiliency,” said Utecht.
DBH offers monthly employee wellness campaigns, with September’s tied to suicide awareness.
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