Helping Yourself to Help Others
Being a healthcare worker over COVID has been a harrowing experience, and one I’ve had the privilege to listen to day after day in my role as a psychiatrist for health care workers, their spouses and their college-aged kids. I think that no one could have really known what COVID was going to look like and what living through a pandemic this long could really have looked like, but anyone could have told you that physician mental health wasn’t in a good place before COVID. And if you threw on a stressor like this, it was going to compound it. And that’s what we’re seeing, and that’s what we’ll be seeing for a long time. We need to be thinking about long term solutions to helping it, because no way a band-aid is going to fix something that is this enormous and affecting us so significantly.
In my role I’ve had the privilege of really hearing the toll that COVID has taken on health care workers working on the front lines. From having to make decisions about who might get a ventilator, or even just struggling with the fact that that could be a decision. From not having personal protection equipment to people questioning their decision-making around COVID, or vaccinations, to existing in a place where they could get sick and they could bring that home in a very different risk than before. All of those challenges have been really unique and compounding in existing really poor baseline mental health in healthcare workers.
As a mental health provider, I listen to those stories and hold that for people. I think that I neglected my own self in the equation and the role that listening to stories can have. Health care workers can get secondary trauma by doing that because we hear the trauma just as much as you can see the trauma. And I just listened and helped as much as I could, for as long as I could, until my therapist told me I was burnt out. As a person who is a burnout expert, it felt almost humiliating to not be the person who identified it in myself, but sometimes it’s hard to identify things in yourself and you need external help. Sometimes you don’t want to believe that’s what’s going on with you. I just wanted to be able to help other people and I didn’t think that being a mental health worker was a front-line job, so how could I possibly be burnt out?
I’ve gotten over that, I’ve been able to take care of myself more, prioritize myself more. Value the role of therapy in my life, value the role of feeling feelings in my life. Trying to understand how important boundaries are and saying no even when people need me, because people will always need me as a mental health provider, as an advocate, as a health care worker and I need to be able to put myself first. The pandemic has taught me a lot about what it means to be a health care worker, what it means to be a physician, what it means to be a mental health provider. Most of all I think it had made me proud to be in that profession and to be able to help this profession with what I do.
But it also shows me how much we have to give back and how we do need to make sure that this profession is taken care of in the long run. And that people realize how much of an impact this has on our mental health, in all aspects. We can’t have the people taking care of other people burn out. We also can’t have the people taking care of the people who take care of people burn out. All of that is important to the sustainability of a workforce, to a workforce that had empathy, to a workforce that you want to go to for help and that you can go to for help. That you feel safe going to for help, and all of that should be a priority.