Mental Health for Mental Health Providers During COVID-19

May 29, 2020

Mental health practitioners are providing critical services and resources now, and they will continue this important work in the coming months and after the COVID-19 pandemic begins to subside. However, when helping patients cope with feelings of stress, anxiety, depression, grief and more, it can be easy for practitioners to overlook their personal mental health needs.

“We are human beings as well as mental health providers, and are experiencing these same feelings: grief, anxiety, uncertainty, confusion, and concern about our own well-being and of those we love,” said Allyson Cherkasky, Ph.D., associate professor in the Counseling and Behavioral Health department and director of the Health and Behavioral Medicine area of emphasis at William James College. “Although our individual circumstances differ, we are most likely experiencing some combination of these feelings. We are not immune.”

While every provider has a unique experience, both personally and professionally, Cherkasky and Mari Carmen Bennasar, PsyD, director of the Latino Mental Health Program and assistant professor in Counseling and Behavioral Health, offer advice for these professionals to help maintain their own mental health and well-being.

Manage Work-Related Stress and Burnout

The COVID-19 crisis has shifted how mental health professionals are providing services. “There’s a learning curve for all of us,” said Cherkasky. “It’s not business as usual.”

Many providers are facing challenges as they are transitioning to telehealth delivery and seeing increases in those seeking mental health services. With an increase in demand, especially during a time when it might be difficult to turn down new patients, Cherkasky explained the importance of being aware of signs of burnout.

“Each of us, as individuals, need to know our limits and we have to honor that to bring our best to others,” said Cherkasky. “We need to know our own signs of impairment. We all have our own Achilles heel when under significant stress. It is important to know what comes up for us when we’re stressed—whether that’s headaches, trouble sleeping, irritability—and pay attention to that.”

Bennasar said, “Mental health providers, especially those who serve marginalized and underserved communities, are struggling to provide the appropriate support. Furthermore, they are struggling to balance caring for others and caring for themselves and their own family.” She suggested deep breathing and grounding exercises when feeling overwhelmed.

“To ground yourself, take a deep breath, look at a specific point and do a sensory check in—What are you touching? Seeing? Smelling? Hearing?—and remind yourself you are here,” Bennasar said.

Additionally, turning to colleagues who may be experiencing similar situations and feelings can help practitioners remember we are not alone. “It’s important that we come together and support each other,” said Cherkasky.

Limit News Consumption

The constant stream of pandemic-related news coverage can be overwhelming, especially for mental health practitioners who are often talking about COVID-19 with patients. Limiting news or establishing a routine for checking updates can be helpful to stay informed, but not overwhelmed with the situation.

“Find what works for you,” said Cherkasky. “You might pick a few reliable sources per day and then stop, watch news programs you like for only a limited time, or avoid checking news before bed.”

She added that being able to check out and not be bombarded with pandemic information helps with overall well-being. Tuning into inspirational podcasts, educational TED Talks or entertaining books can be a good way to engage with media that is nourishing rather than overwhelming.

Socially Distance, But Don’t Emotionally Distance

Keeping in contact with family and friends is important for emotional well-being, even if we must be physically distant from one another. Cherkasky points out that research indicates, “loneliness can be lethal.” It impacts immune functioning and general health.

“It is challenging not to be with the people we love, see our colleagues at work, or do all the things we are used to doing every day,” said Cherkasky. “Not having that physical connection is really difficult.” She suggested keeping in touch with loved ones through video or phone calls, or even writing letters.

Additionally, many activities and events are moving online, allowing people to continue to connect with community groups. For example, Cherkasky noted religious or spiritual services are being streamed online, exercise classes are being offered virtually, or groups like book clubs are connecting through video chats.

Remember “Pillars of Wellness”

In order to maintain both physical and mental wellness, Cherkasky advised practicing essential wellness principles including: healthy diet, exercise, restorative sleep, relaxation exercises, social connection, meaningful activities, practicing gratitude, and decreasing alcohol and substance use, smoking or caffeine intake if you find it problematic or it increases your anxiety.

“It is an ethical imperative to engage in self-care,” said Cherkasky. “When we don’t stay attuned to our well-being, we can experience compassion fatigue. This is when we become physically and emotionally exhausted and may not be as present in our life and with our clients. We stop taking care of ourselves and that impacts the work that we do.”

Bennasar agreed. “There is more need for strong empathic understanding and response which puts mental health providers at higher risk of secondary trauma and of compassion fatigue,” she said.

Elements like high empathy, greater involvement with impacted patients, strong satisfaction in helping, and difficulties distancing from work can cause this greater vulnerability among providers, which is why Bennasar emphasizes the importance of prevention. “Often mental health providers go the extra mile to help others, but neglect [their own] self-care along the way,” she said and suggested remembering the mantra, “The better I am, the best I will support others.”

Both Cherkasky and Bennasar suggest regularly engaging in activities such as going for a walk, practicing yoga, meditating, streaming concerts or museum tours, reading for pleasure, trying new recipes, or starting a gratitude journal.

Each person finds enjoyment and meaning in different activities. Cherkasky explained individuals need to find what works for them. “Doing things that replenish us and having support and connection is critical,” she said.

Experience Rather than Suppress Feelings

The COVID-19 pandemic is causing people around the world to experience many intense, confusing and sometimes conflicting emotions. “What is very unique to COVID-19 is the duration of the crisis and the widespread and global impact,” said Bennasar. “It is difficult, if not impossible at times, to separate what is happening to others from what is happening to us.”

Cherkasky mentioned it is important to experience your own myriad of feelings, and to seek support from colleagues and loved ones, or our own therapists when indicated. Suppressing feelings does not make them go away, but rather, show up in other ways.

Most importantly, Cherkasky emphasized having self-compassion during this time. “Each day is going to be different. You may feel more hopeful, at peace or ambitious one day and another day feel more uncertain and afraid,” said Cherkasky. “Really try to take it day-by-day, sometimes hour-by-hour, or minute-by-minute, and ask “how can I take care of myself to be my best today?’”

William James College has created an online Resource Hub to provide information, tools and resources to help individuals, parents, educators, mental health professionals, and other members of the community on a variety of topics during this time.