Pandemic Perspectives: Caring for the carers
Galatians 6:2-3 (New International Version) ”Carry each other’s burdens, and in this way you will fulfill the law of Christ”.
One of the more obvious ways I have witnessed ‘pandemic fatigue’ at work is the sea change between the public response to key workers around the first lockdown in March 2020 and the current response, third time around.
I remember vividly the energy and enthusiasm behind the ‘clapping for carers’ movement and the sense of appreciation amongst the public for those putting themselves at risk in hospitals, care homes, pharmacies and other health and social care workplaces.
I know that this is not a reflection that people are ungrateful but there seems to be a general sense of apathy and indifference that was not evident nine months ago. At the same time there are alarming figures being circulated in the press which indicate that healthcare staff working at the frontline are experiencing very high rates of depression and anxiety disorders, including PTSD.
Certainly the issue of professional burnout is a major concern at this time within the health and care professions. At the best of times it is important for those in psychologically and emotionally challenging professions to have a personal and professional support system to lean on and to help them to develop and sustain a sense of resilience.
It might come as a surprise to the general public, but there are relatively high level levels of baseline mental health difficulties amongst healthcare professionals compared to the general population. Despite their knowledge of the workings of the health care systems in which they are employed, there is reduced ‘help-seeking’ amongst healthcare staff, most likely as a result of the stigma associated with admitting that they are struggling.
This highlights the need to support a group of people under extreme pressure and with a unique vulnerability. Early in the pandemic, many frontline staff were, in a sense, ‘too busy to worry’, but the demands on them have been relentless and unsustainable.
Within my specialty, psychiatry, as well as for my colleagues working in psychological therapy services, we are blessed with a culture of supervision, where on a regular (often weekly) basis we have a senior colleague to lean on to talk through areas of challenge, be they professional or personal.
This gives us time to reflect on difficult experiences and to address and share the burden with a trusted colleague. Outside our professional networks, we should not underestimate the power of having someone asking us how we are doing and knowing that there are people out there who genuinely care about our wellbeing.
By its nature, a pandemic disrupts both professional and personal support networks that we rely on to help us navigate through adversity and challenging times. Without them, there is a risk a massive hole develops in our ability to overcome obstacles.
I caution that if there are major mental health difficulties, professional help may well be required, but having a friend reaching out and listening attentively and with interest can, in my opinion, play a role in providing support.
I reflect on the response on the Grenfell Tower fire. A good deal of professional-led resources were put in place to provide formal counselling and therapy for the victims for people who were affected by the fire. My understanding is that rather than the services being flooded with demand, as had been anticipated, it was the local community that mobilised and found a lot of solutions to support those who had been affected.
I would strongly encourage any who considers a health or care key worker as their friend to check in on them and find out how they are doing. Sometimes the simple things make the biggest difference.
Dr Chi-Chi Obuaya is a Consultant Psychiatrist working in the NHS and in independent practice, as well as a Mind & Soul Foundation Director