For the last two years, wave after wave of coronavirus infections have put immense stress on our healthcare system and the people who make it work. A new effort led by UnityPoint Health – St. Luke’s Hospital aims to alleviate some of those stresses by helping frontline workers identify and address their mental health needs.
The new effort will bring together healthcare providers, law enforcement agencies, and ambulance services to create a coordinated network of messaging, training and supports. Participating organizations span Linn, Johnson, Jones and Benton counties, and employ more than 4,700 people. A $15,000 Program Support Grant from the Community Foundation will support Mental Health First Aid Instructor Training in Linn County.
Bringing a wide range of stakeholders together broadens the reach of the program, but also informs its development. Organizers are looking to existing evidence-based practices, but are also tapping into what has helped local organizations navigate the challenges of the pandemic so far.
“We recognized what was happening as COVID and the derecho took a toll on our employees,” said Lori Weih, Director of Community Engagement at UnityPoint Health – St. Luke’s Hospital. “We started reaching out to other area providers and first responders, and they were seeing similar themes.”
A national survey of more than one thousand healthcare workers found that 75% feel overwhelmed and more than 50% are experiencing compassion fatigue—a condition characterized by emotional and physical exhaustion that leads to a diminished ability to empathize.
At the local level, anecdotal evidence suggests frontline workers are largely in the late stages of compassion fatigue; many report feeling anxious and unsure of how long they can continue working. The reasons behind these feelings are complicated—as healthcare providers, many feel they need to be strong for the community; most are losing sleep, taking on longer shifts and experiencing occupational hazards. As staffing shortages become a concern, those that need a break feel they can’t burden their team by taking a day off.
St. Luke’s Hospital is looking to interrupt this cycle with a multi-level approach. Forty individuals will be trained as Make It OK Ambassadors and lead a messaging campaign to reduce the stigma associated with mental illness; thirty others will be trained in mental health first aid to better identify signs and symptoms in their coworkers and connect them to existing supports. Disaster Worker Resiliency Training will help build the coping and resiliency skills in those who help our community through challenges like the derecho and pandemic.
“The need for this is high across all stakeholders,” Lori said. “It’s a unique space to provide this care because everyone wants to be strong. These are the people caring for our community and we need to do more to take care of them.”