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COVID-19 has changed us all.
It’s changed the way we look at life, what we prioritise, the way we value our health, how we value our healthcare professionals, how we understand isolation and loneliness, and how we empathise with others.
But what if empathy is your job?
What if you are expected to deal with horrendous trauma being described to you daily? What if you have to refrain from displaying emotion whilst being told life-shattering stories?
It’s nothing new for a particular group of professionals, but this massive global suffering, this worldwide sense of fear and uncertainty, this total loss of control, this collective trauma—that’s completely new.
Mental health professionals are looked at as people who can contain lots of others’ feelings, and I think that’s definitely true, but we also experience the same feelings of fear, anxiety, and helplessness on top of holding that space for others, which is incredibly tough. Mental health professionals are constantly being exposed to the collective trauma of the pandemic by helping others to work through their difficult experiences.
Hearing these narratives is indirect exposure to trauma, and as the role of a mental health professional is to be empathetic, they tend to experience all the same feelings, to a lesser extent, as the person telling their story. This constant exposure can lead to vicarious trauma.
What do we do when our trauma therapists are all traumatised?
This can be managed by the professional attending therapy themselves to maintain their own mental health and have their own outlet. However, with time constraints and a demand on services, that time in therapy is time that could be spent seeing another client instead—so which do you think gets prioritised?
There is an immense pressure that occurs when people seek professional support during a crisis, because the need for us to consistently look after our mental health in order to build our own coping skills is rarely acknowledged outside of these times. The pressure added onto mental health services during times of collective distress is worrying. The expectations on individual professionals are especially difficult as we’re often so focused on the needs of others that it’s easy for everyone to forget that we are very much on the emotional frontlines.
There is a mental health crisis alongside the pandemic and, believe me, we are trying to treat it as much as possible. But it’s getting harder and harder to do when there is so much demand and just not enough resources.
Where is all our funding and why isn’t this seen as the public health emergency that it is?
Mental health services, along with all healthcare services, were already struggling before a pandemic turned the world inside out.
We have no idea how much of an impact this pandemic is really going to have on mental health, long-term. It will affect children removed from school and friends and extended family for months on end. It will affect the elderly, who have been alone throughout, and those who have shielded and lived in fear. It will affect those who have suffered with COVID-19 and fought for their lives, and their loved ones, who feared losing them and were unable to visit. It will affect those who did lose loved ones and were unable to say goodbye; it will affect those who have lost their jobs and homes. It will affect those who experienced any sort of abuse within the home and couldn’t escape.
And it will most certainly affect thousands of healthcare staff for years to come.
We haven’t scratched the surface of the mental health crisis, which is due to unfold because the pandemic isn’t even over yet.
Sometimes it feels as though society, and our government in particular, still needs to understand that just because mental health professionals aren’t in scrubs and hazmat suits it doesn’t make them any less essential in this pandemic.
This is life and death for our patients, too, and for all those experiencing loss, feeling anxious and depressed, trapped at home with abusers, feeling lonely and desperate, feeling like their whole world has been turned upside down, and feeling like they don’t want to live like this anymore.
Yes, mental health professionals can take on a lot—it’s the nature of the job. But that doesn’t mean it isn’t heavy.
We feel it all, and it will be heavy for us long after the pandemic is over.
But we’ll be here, ready to listen.