Program connecting front line workers to mental health services seeing spike in demand

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Health care workers are under a tremendous amount of stress. The pandemic has been ongoing for nine months leading to physical, mental and emotional fatigue.

Demand is growing for a program, started in April, that connects nurses, doctors and others in the field to mental health resources.

“I would say over the last one to two months our services, requests for services, have increased two to threefold,” said Minnesota Mental Health Advocates Executive Director Shireen Sakizadeh McConnell. “The last two weeks have been really hard.”

Health care workers can call, email or message her organization on social media to get started. The nonprofit will then take the individual’s information and create a list of mental health services that are covered by their insurance.

If they are uninsured, Sakizadeh McConnell said they’ll connect them with affordable or free options. They will also advocate for people with insurance companies.

If you are in need of mental health services, call 651-321-2340.

Sakizadeh McConnell told 5 EYEWITNESS NEWS in April that the financial aspect of getting care can be overwhelming, preventing those who need help the most from reaching out.

She worked as a nurse before founding the organization. She said health care professionals are also often taught to have thick skin and that vulnerability is a sign of weakness.

“What you see with trauma and the trauma that is prevalent in a COVID world, it’s not sustainable, it’s not a sustainable method of managing stress, of managing exposure to trauma,” she said.

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According to Sakizadeh McConnell, many who are reaching out feel abandoned.

“A lot of exhausted, emotionally fragile individuals who are quite frankly tired of being called health care heroes and then asked to just put up with the situation and be told that they signed up for this when they decided to enter nursing, decided to enter the medical profession,” she said. “They’re going to war every day and they’re fighting this virus but also they are also fighting the community’s lack of compliance to CDC recommendations, state mandates.”

Regions Hospital Nurse Anesthetist Caitlyn Thompson, who also spoke with KSTP in April, said it was difficult to see the Black Friday shopping lines.

“When you see them not adhering to social distancing or not wearing masks properly, it’s very frustrating because we’re dealing with compassion fatigue, burnout all these stressors and we’re trying to do our best and to show up every day,” she said. “I think it’s hard to rationalize what we see when we deal with COVID patients until you experience it.”

According to Thompson, the situation is worse than when we spoke with her in April.

She said many staff members have been dealing with a COVID diagnosis or exposure. They’re also still worried about personal protective equipment (PPE) levels.

“We still have to re-purpose our N95s up to five times,” Thompson said. “I’ve been with a COVID patient and I’ve had to reuse it and it actually snapped and was essentially ineffective while dealing with a COVID patient […] we’re getting better at PPE but that is still a huge concern.”

During this surge, she said they’re also watching hospitals struggle with prioritizing patients.

Thompson is a wellness advocate for her team. She sends out frequent emails, which include mantras, journaling exercises, recipes and links to mental health resources.

“It’s OK to not be OK as a health care provider, I think we all need to realize that,” she said. “I know for me, I was sitting Thanksgiving Day and I had just finished a long shift and I was baking a pie for myself and then thought back to the day before when I had intubated a patient who is 10 years older than me."

“He looked at me and said ‘I have a lot to get home to’ and all you can do in that moment is be with him and talk to him. All I could think about [later] that day was, I’m home baking a pie and I know he’s in the hospital intubated right now.”

Thompson said she took time to reflect.

“Using these resources that Shireen’s organization and others have created for us, I was like I need a moment […] In that moment, I took the time I needed to feel my feelings,” she said. “It’s hard. The next day, weeks and afterward, that’s when you’ll cycle through those emotions, it’s not just during your shift, it’s after your shift.”

Both she and ICU nurse Julie Bertram said the need for mental health resources is greater than ever.

“The sadness and the frustration is very palpable and it’s not just with nurses, it’s with all health care staff and that’s what I take home with me every day,” said Bertram.

She works at St. Joseph’s Hospital in St. Paul.

“We have two ICUs that are completely full of COVID patients,” she said. “We just don’t see when this is going to slow down or die down anytime soon. We all hope that it happens sooner rather than later but we foresee this being here for months.”

She said they are also concerned about PPE supplies and having enough staff to care for patients.

“The day-to-day stress of feeling understaffed, overworked, it’s been very difficult to deal with,” she said. “At the end of your shift … you feel like you have nothing left and then you have to go back the next morning and do it all again, which we will do because that is our calling.”

Fairview Health Services is also restructuring its health care system and hospitals, including St. Joseph’s where the ER will close soon.

“It’s extremely stressful,” said Bertram. “On top of COVID and seeing some of the sickest people we’ve ever seen in our entire lives and how scared they are. Some of these people don’t speak English, too, and trying to communicate with them and try to help them understand what’s going on is heartbreaking, it’s very heartbreaking.”

Bertram said she hasn’t seen her own family since March, which is her biggest stressor. She lost her father in February just before the pandemic hit.

“When I take care of these patients and when I see they can’t be with their family members, I can’t imagine the tremendous pain and sorrow they’re feeling not being able to be with their loved one as they are dying,” she said.

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It’s all leading to emotional, mental and physical burnout.

Sakizadeh McConnell started in the spring with about 50 individual or group practices ready to help front line workers. Now, that’s grown to about 150 but there is still more need.

“I’m fortunate to have a lot of mental health providers that rallied around our mental health professions program,” she said. “These are some of the most compassionate people I’ve ever met and they are doing their best to fit in health care professionals for sessions but they’re being spread thin as well. I worry about their mental health, there’s a cascade effect here.”

Shireen Ghanatabadi is a licensed therapist involved with the MN Mental Health Advocates Program. She told KSTP she started seeing an increase in health care professionals seeking help back in April. There continues to be demand.

“Right now, health care workers are living in their trauma,” she said. “Some folks that I work with have shared that sometimes it’s just really hard to slow down because they go back into their work and it’s re-traumatizing all over again. Some are saying it’s just easier for them to be in the trauma then try to slow down and not be in it.”

Ghanatabadi said she’s seeing signs of the “fight or flight” response like chest tightness, difficulty breathing, an increase in chronic pain, anxiety and anxiousness.

“The other end too when some people experience more of that freeze response, we notice lower energy, feeling constantly exhausted, numbness, apathy, brain fog can even happen,” she said, “There’s this oscillation between fight or flight, being stuck in fight or flight, and then being stuck in freeze.”

Health care workers are also sharing that they’re having intrusive thoughts, nightmares and flashbacks.

“My fear is that a lot of health care workers will have post-traumatic stress disorder from this,” she said. “Health care workers are going to need our support long-term, not just now when there’s chaos going on. As soon as things settle, that support is even more essential.”

According to Ghanatabadi, practicing mindfulness and relaxation can improve wellbeing. Increasing movement, even if it’s just walking around the house, can also help.

“One thing that I am noticing from folks, whether it’s in sessions or whether it’s out in public, is that people are compassion fatigued, which is oftentimes a sign of burnout,” she said. “Filling up our cups, making sure we’re okay is really important and society as a whole has to come together, too.”

Sakizadeh McConnell is looking for additional mental health providers to help with this program. She said their goal is to get front line workers in for an appointment as soon as possible. Right now, many therapists are booked up.

With high demand, the organization’s resources are also strained. To support MN Mental Health Advocates, click here.

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