New program breaks down barriers to mental health support for health care workers

Health care workers are on the front lines of the COVID-19 crisis, dealing with enormous amounts of stress at work. When they get home, they worry about whether they’re exposing their family members.

There’s also an emotional toll on those who have to quarantine.

A new free resource is available to help those in health care professions cope with the crisis.

“What I wanted to create was a safety net for health care workers,” said Shireen Sakizadeh McConnell, the executive director of Minnesota Mental Health Advocates.

“It’s a three-pronged approach. We help individuals identify mental health resources, we do frequent check-ins and we walk with them along their entire mental health journey […] and make sure that nobody falls through the cracks.”

Sakizadeh McConnell worked as a nurse before founding the organization. She said many in the field are left with unprocessed trauma, which can result in a mental health crisis or lead to suicide.

If a health care worker is struggling, she urges them to call MN Mental Health Advocates. The nonprofit will take their information and then create a list of mental health services that are covered by the individual’s 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.

“We find that just the financial aspect of getting care, that can be very overwhelming,” she said. “If you factor in someone who is paralyzed with mental illness or overwhelmed with anxiety, that can be a process that is just impossible for them to deal with and that is just another opportunity for them to walk away from getting treatment.”

She’s gathered about 50 individual and group practices that are ready to help and specialize in the needs of front-line workers.

“There is a big need,” said Caitlyn Thompson, a nurse at Region’s Hospital. “We kind of get lost in health care about caring for other people and not caring for ourselves.”

Thompson said, prior to the COVID-19 outbreak, her employer, HealthPartners, started a new wellness initiative to help staff cope with the difficulties of their jobs.

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"As soon as the pandemic hit, I and another member stepped forward and we made it a routine thing for us because we saw the need," she said. "A lot of people talk about secondary trauma and compassion fatigue. We’re stressed inside and outside of work."

They started leading their team in weekly activities, including sharing positive mantras, journaling exercises, recipes, podcasts and exercise routines. Those are now included in a weekly wellness email they send out to their department.

Thompson said they also established a peer support system.

She believes the additional resources now available through MN Mental Health Advocates are “exactly what health care professionals and our front-line workers need right now.”

“This kind of takes the burden off of them if they were too nervous to reach out to staff,” she said. “Now, they have this professional resource that’s outside.”

Thompson has been treating both non-COVID-19 and COVID-19 patients as a nurse anesthetist.

“You would think that three weeks, a month in that we would be kind of getting a grasp on it but every night before a shift I still find it hard to sleep,” she said.

She’s been quarantined twice now, most recently for patient exposure.

“I’m staring down the trachea and direct access to all of this stuff,” Thompson said. “It’s the scariest thing. You’re thinking, ‘Did I apply my PPE correctly? Should I, do I have time to talk to this patient before I put them to sleep? Because this may be the last conversation they are ever able to vocalize.’ And talking to families, every day is a little bit different.”

Thompson said she believes as the pandemic continues, and as health care workers get beyond the crisis, there will be more cases of trauma, compassion fatigue and PTSD.

MN Mental Health Advocates’ support will be available through it all.

“I think even just knowing that it’s there and that it’s free and we have options, have somebody to talk to takes a little bit of burden off,” said Thompson. “Even if it’s a little bit, we can all use that right now.”

Therapist Erin Pash, co-founder of Ellie Family Services, told 5 EYEWITNESS NEWS that it’s important for health care workers to be selfish and take time to speak with a professional, talk with a friend or go for a walk.

“The best care you can take is of yourself, then you’re able to give,” she said.

Ellie Family Services is one of the providers participating in the program.

“If the barrier to them getting help is calling their insurance company, we need more support to make sure these people can get matched with the right services,” Pash said.

Pash offered some advice to those who feel like they’re hyperventilating or are overwhelmed. She said there are four simple steps that can help.

“Go and get yourself a glass of water, drink something,” said Pash. “That sends triggers to your stomach, which sends triggers to your brain that says, ‘If I were really not okay I couldn’t be drinking water.’”

Next, have a bite to eat to increase blood sugar. If neither of those work, take a shower.

“Your skin is your biggest sensory organ,” Pash said. “Tell that sensory system, ‘I’m okay,’ get some hot water on it, it’s naturally calming.”

The last instruction, said Pash, is to put on clean clothes.

“[These steps] have a really good success rate of just calming your survival brain down just enough to access some of those rational skills around, ‘Okay, I can do this, I can handle this, I can get through this, I can call a friend, I can count my breathing,’” said Pash.

Ellie Family Services is now doing telehealth, helping people process the uncertainty and grief surrounding the crisis.

For more details on the program, click here.

Sakizadeh McConnell said it’s okay to reach out to just get more information about the new program. They also have a peer network of support.

“Health care workers are always silently doing the work and making things happen,” said Sakizadeh McConnell. “This is how it’s always been, now you factor in they are doing this heroic work during a pandemic and they’re in survival mode but that’s not sustainable.”

“When we get things under control, we’re going to find this population is going to be physically shaken and dealing with mental health issues,” Sakizadeh McConnell added.