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How pandemic is affecting the mental health of frontline workers

Published: Dec. 21, 2020 at 9:13 PM EST
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LEXINGTON, Ky. (WKYT) -Since March 6, 2020 healthcare workers in Kentucky from doctors, nurses and respiratory therapists have been on the frontlines battling COVID-19.

As the virus surges, there is some hope as many of those frontline workers in the state are starting to or have received their vaccine.

Despite the hope a vaccine brings, the worry continues about the mental strain COVID-19 is putting on an already high stress sector.

There is also worry among some health experts that as the pandemic continues compassion fatigue could start to set in.

It was nearly ten months ago when healthcare workers in Kentucky were introduced to a new challenge.

Governor Andy Beshear announced on Friday March 6 that Kentucky had its first positive case of COVID-19.

It was a virus many knew nothing about, and it was largely unknown in how it would affect people.

“It’s here and it’s real and it’s killing people. We are seeing it every single day,” said Megan Stearns, a registered nurse at Baptist Health Lexington.

The virus has not slowed and now more people than ever are in the hospital with COVID-19.

For Baptist Health Lexington nurse Megan Stearns, her job is very different now than it was.

“It’s pretty hectic, policies change literally every single day for us. So, we kind of have to take it in stride when we come here,” said Stearns.

For a job that is already considered high stress, COVID-19 has added an extra layer, this one perhaps a bit more emotional and one that can weigh on healthcare providers.

“The people on the frontline are really the only people who get to see these patients which is sad,” said Stearns.

“We become their family or we try to be their family and it does take a big toll on us,” said Shelby Martin, a UK Respiratory Therapist.

Shelby Martin is a veteran UK Hospital Respiratory Therapist.

We first talked with her in late March as the pandemic was settling into the state.

Since then Martin has lost track of the number of COVID patients she has cared for over the months.

While she and her colleagues have a better understanding now of treating their patients, what hasn’t changed though is the mental strain attached to working a pandemic.

“And these people are really scared because a lot of them think they are going to die,” said Martin.

Martin, like others has been asked to do much more than administer just care, like being there in place of family so a patient doesn’t die alone.

Martin remembers a woman asking her to stay with her mother who was losing her battle to COVID.

“The daughter asked me if I would just stay in there with her and hold her hand and it’s hard, it’s just sad. It’s hard on you,” said Martin.

It is an emotional roller coaster Martin says that can’t easily be turned off when your shift ends.“Even on our days off we worry about these patients and we wonder how they are doing. We just hope and wish the best for them,” said Martin.

Martin says she is aware the toll COVID has taken mentally she says a lot of prayers get her through the day.

She knows help is available through the hospital if she needs it.

“I think God placed me here for a reason and I’m thankful he’s allowed me to serve this way,” said Martin.

What Martin and others like her are facing daily is something that is concerning to mental health expert Dr. Rachael Hovermale.

“A lot of times people don’t always realize they are suffering. Nurses are really, really bad about filling up their own cup,” said Hovermale.

Early on in the pandemic the Associate Professor in the Department of Nursing at Eastern Kentucky University reached out to help nurses at Baptist Health Lexington talk through their feelings.

“I knew then that there was a good chance that their mental health would start to suffer, nursing is a high stress position anyway,” said Dr. Rachael Hovermale.

Dr. Hovermale worries we may have another battle to fight, something called compassion fatigue.

It’s often described as the negative cost of caring and it can lead to burnout among healthcare workers.

“There is a high rate of depression, there is a high rate of substance abuse, high rate of suicide in healthcare and all of those things are so easily fixed when we just talk about it,” said Dr. Hovermale.

If there has been any good to come out of the pandemic, Dr. Hovermale says its more conversation about the real need to educate the industry about the concern of the mental health of those working the frontline.

“I think it continues to need some focus, it continues to need to be addressed. A lot of times mental health is seen as weakness, so people don’t ask for help until it’s too the point where they are at their wits end,” said Hovermale.

To try and address mental health early among pre-nursing majors at EKU, Dr. Hovermale has helped create a program called Self Care for Healthcare.

The new program is a way to get nursing students thinking about their mental health before they ever care for a patient.

At UK Healthcare they offer a program called SOAR for its employees.

The program, Supporting One Another to Rise provides a team of trained peers who provide supportive care through active listening an empathy to colleagues who have been involved in emotionally traumatic events.

At Baptist Health Lexington employees can gain assistance through Magellan Healthcare if they need to talk with someone.

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