Help is Available for Frontline Health Care Workers Struggling to Manage Their Own Anxiety and Depression Resulting from COVID-19 Patient Care
NOTE FROM THE EDITOR: To help meet the mental health needs of frontline health care workers during the COVID-19 pandemic, our sponsor, the HealthWell Foundation, has launched a new fund to provide copayment assistance for behavioral health treatments. Through the COVID-19 Frontline Health Care Workers Behavioral Health Fund, HealthWell will provide up to $2,000 in financial assistance for a 12-month grant period to eligible health care workers who have annual household incomes up to 500 percent of the federal poverty level.
In mid-March, Jeffrey Peppercorn, MD, MPH, found his professional life flipped upside down. As the COVID-19 pandemic quickly filled Massachusetts General Hospital with patients, he became one of the first medical oncologists on staff to serve on the new COVID-19 pandemic unit, managing patients with the novel coronavirus instead of those with cancer. Soon, other health care professionals at the hospital also found themselves in new roles, facing new challenges and struggling to treat patients with a complicated and poorly understood infectious disease.
“Massachusetts General Hospital was one of the busiest in the country during the initial surge in March 2020,” said Dr. Peppercorn, Director, Massachusetts General Hospital Cancer Center Supportive Care and Survivorship Program and Associated Professor of Medicine, Harvard Medical School. “By April, we had to turn entire floors of the hospital once devoted to cardiology, oncology or pediatrics to COVID care units. This meant changes in workload and practice for everyone involved – not only the nurses and physicians but also food service workers, custodial staff, medical and nursing students, respiratory therapists and many others.”
Dr. Peppercorn saw the mental health impacts on his colleagues and co-workers almost immediately. The need to isolate patients – while devastating for the patients and their families – hit the care teams hard as well, he said. Even with personal protective equipment, they worried about getting sick themselves or bringing the virus home to their families. His own anxiety led to trouble sleeping and increased stress.
“I remember conversations with the nurses about the emotional exhaustion of caring for patients in isolation for weeks and months at a time,” he said. “As frontline care providers, the sheer volume of patients with COVID, disruption to our usual practices, and ongoing concerns for ourselves and our families took a mental toll.”
Support for Frontline Care Providers
Dr. Peppercorn was quick to praise Mass General for the way the hospital supported its staff. In addition to making sure frontline workers were equipped with the right personal protective equipment, the hospital set up a service to allow staff to stay in hotels when needed, helping to reduce their fears of spreading the virus to their family members at home. Other employee services included group resiliency programs, individual counseling and free access to stress reduction apps.
The hospital also shifted its outpatient services to telehealth, allowing clinicians to see patients by video or telephone. The switch, while appropriate and convenient for patients, was highly disruptive for providers and challenging for some older patients.
“Over the last 11 months, we have learned how to spread the burden among medical and nursing staff,” Dr. Peppercorn said. “We clearly have adequate PPE, readily available COVID testing for staff, and increased confidence in our ability to manage the disease based on evidence and experience. However, just as it has been a long year for everyone in the U.S., as health care workers, we still live with the changes and disruptions every day.”
Dr. Peppercorn, who serves as Scientific and Ethics Advisor for HealthWell, remarked that HealthWell’s new COVID-19 Frontline Health Care Workers Behavioral Health Fund addresses a critical need during the pandemic and well beyond, helping frontline care providers access and afford behavioral health services to manage anxiety and depression resulting from their pandemic roles.
The unique, HealthWell-sponsored, fund is available to assist frontline health care workers in covering their out-of-pocket treatment-related copayments for prescription drugs, counseling services, psychotherapy, and transportation needed to manage COVID-19 related behavioral health issues.
“Oftentimes, people suffering from feelings of anxiety, helplessness, failure and fear do not seek necessary treatment and counseling, which can lead to more serious situations, including PTSD, and even thoughts of suicide,” said Susan Gurley, Executive Director, Anxiety and Depression Association of America. “We applaud the HealthWell Foundation for recognizing the paramount need for frontline health care workers who are going to heroic measures to save the lives of those impacted by COVID-19 by providing a vital financial resource that will enable them to obtain critical behavioral health services.”
Dr. Peppercorn echoed Gurley’s sentiments: “Health care workers are not always good about seeking care for ourselves,” he said. “There is a tendency to work long hours and be ‘strong,’ which doesn’t always lend itself to knowing when to ask for help.”
Longer-Term Mental Health Impacts
Stress, anxiety and burnout can have serious, long-term effects on mental wellbeing that can linger or emerge well after the pandemic has passed. Dr. Peppercorn expressed concern that there will be some degree of underdiagnosed post-traumatic stress disorder from the acute challenges health care workers have experienced last March and April.
“Personally, I’m feeling better about things now than I did last March,” he said. “Now, the problem is less anxiety and more fatigue. Unlike our friends and family, health care professionals aren’t working remotely. We never stopped going to work and haven’t really been able to take a break from thinking about COVID. Most of us are grateful for the job security during these difficult times, but the pandemic has taken its toll on us, both physically and mentally. Financial help accessing mental health care will make it easier for health care workers to take the first steps in seeking care without having to worry about whether it will bring additional financial stress for them and their families.”
To determine eligibility and apply for financial assistance, visit HealthWell’s COVID-19 Frontline Health Care Workers Behavioral Health Fund page. To learn how you can support this or other HealthWell programs, visit HealthWellFoundation.org.