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Mental health professionals: Remember to take care of yourself

The stress frontline healthcare workers experienced during the height of the COVID-19 pandemic and beyond has been well documented, especially after the death of Dr. Lorna Breen, an ER doctor with no history of mental illness who died by suicide after tirelessly caring for patients and then contracting the disease herself.

However, less well-known is the effect the pandemic is having on a different group of frontline healthcare workers: mental health professionals.

The pandemic’s strain on hospitals and their workers has begun to abate, and hopefully the trend will continue. However, mental health professionals may not experience a downturn for years to come if providers who participated in an Anthem Inc.-commissioned survey are correct: Nearly three out of four mental health specialists and primary care doctors surveyed estimate that the mental health effects from the pandemic will last up to three years or longer.

Recognizing May as Mental Health Awareness Month, Beacon Health Options would like to use this space to support the mental health professionals who have spent more than a year treating people who need them more now than they might ever have.

Recognize the signs

The COVID-19 pandemic has been a protracted crisis where feelings of fear and stress can build. That intensifying stress can lead to burnout and secondary traumatic stress, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. One doesn’t have to be a mental health professional or other provider to recognize burnout – those feelings of extreme exhaustion and being overwhelmed. However, secondary traumatic stress – symptoms that emerge from exposure to someone else’s trauma as opposed to one’s own – is a common experience for mental health professionals as well.

Even mental health professionals may need reminders on recognizing when they’re approaching their limit. Signs of burnout include irritability, indifference, exhaustion, apathy and poor hygiene. Professionally, burnout may lead to feelings of failure or that there’s nothing you can do to help.

Signs of secondary traumatic stress include excessive worry that something bad will happen; an exaggerated startle reflex; physical signs, such as a rapid heartbeat; nightmares and more.

What you can do to take care of yourself

Perhaps the best advice for mental health professionals is to follow your own advice. What do you tell your clients to help them manage their own stress? You may benefit from doing the same. Below are some reminders on how to manage stress and burnout to help improve your wellbeing.

Promote self-care. Getting a good night’s sleep, eating a healthy diet and exercising are the ABC’s to self-care. The hard part is committing to doing it. Remember that you can’t help others if you aren’t taking care of yourself. For example, it’s a healthy practice to stick with set office hours so that you can carve out time for self-care.

Adopt the coping strategies that work for you. We all cope with difficult situations differently. For one person, it may be taking a walk. For another, it might be reminding oneself of all the things to be thankful for. For another, it might be reading poetry. Whatever it is, be sure that you know what works best for you and to take the time to do it.

Rely on others. You don’t have to do this alone, all the time. If you’re part of a larger team, discuss how you can better share workloads. Share ideas and strategies for handling difficult situations and acknowledge each other’s successes. Simply check in with each other to see how coworkers are doing and how you can help each other out. For those professionals who work alone, developing this kind of camaraderie may be more difficult but not impossible. Tap into the resources of any professional groups. Cultivate your existing professional relationships to get the support you need.

More work isn’t better work. Saying that work isn’t everything to a mental health professional is a tough sell because of the nature of the work they do: helping people to lead better lives. It’s hard to say no to people in need. However, remember that working all the time does not equate to doing your best work. For many people, it requires a mind shift to not equate more with better.

Beacon Health Options calls upon the professionals who take care of the mental health of others to remember to take care of your own mental health. You are critical to our nation’s health and wellbeing, and as the pandemic and other stressors unfold, your continued contributions may turn out to be more important than ever. To help make your job a little easier as you continue to treat people through the pandemic, you can find information from our Caring Through COVID webinar series by clicking here.

Additionally, to find more information and resources acknowledging May as Mental Health Awareness Month, visit the new State of the Nation’s Mental Health website.

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