Shirah Vollmer MD

The Musings of Dr. Vollmer

Healthcare Provider Mental Health and Self Care

Posted by Dr. Vollmer on March 30, 2020

Welcome to my second post/podcast brought to you to share with you different aspects of how Covid-19 is contributing to mental health challenges.

Today’s topic will be the health care provider, those on the frontlines of this scary and all too often, fatal disease.

The first point I want to make is that no heath care provider signed up to risk their life and the lives of their loved ones. For all of us, including our medical teams, this viral explosion came to us with little warning, and thereby little psychological preparation. This little time for psychological preparation is a major contributing factor in the stress to the health care provider. They are caught between doing their job, risking their life, the lives of their loved ones, vs. taking time off and feeling cowardly and not truly devoted to their field. This dilemma right there is often an enormous moral dilemma/stress for the clinician. They are faced with a lose/lose proposition. They can go to work and risk their health and the health of their loved ones, or they can take a leave of absence and be plagued with guilt. For some, there is simply no good answer and so they are left with symptoms of stress which include exhaustion, stomach aches, poor sleep, poor eating habits, and poor concentration.

The second point I want to make is not every health care provider has support from their family. Prior to Covid-19, most health care providers were the pride and joy of their support system. After Covid-19, the health care provider became an object of fear and avoidance. This rapid transformation in how others are viewing clinicians reflects the fact that the loved ones are now faced with protecting themselves from a healthcare provider who is now a potential super-spreader.

The third point I want to make is health care providers are feeling very let down by a system which does not provide enough PPE-personal protective equipment. The system, the government, the leadership, however hard they are trying are not able to provide the basics of viral protection. As such, there is stress from feeling unsupported from the higher ranks. This can feel very disappointing and contribute to stress symptoms.

Now, I want to move on to three action items that can help the stress of the health care provider.

1. Talk about what you are going through to one trusted supportive person in your life. Ask this person to be your confidant, because you need to share your experience, your perspective, and your mental and physical reactions to all of this stress.

2. Discuss and even write down the pros and cons of going to work every day. Talk about what it would feel like to take a leave of absence. Talk about what it would feel like to not take a leave of absence. Talk about how your loved ones feel about you working. Talk about how your loved ones would feel if you took a break. Begin an on-going narrative about life in the “trenches” and give yourself permission to do a thought experiment about having another life where you put your profession on pause.

3. Eat well, sleep well, exercise, and know your limits. By this I mean, the first priority is your day to day health. Create a routine of meals that work for you and nourish your body. Make sleep a priority because without sleep you will diminish your functioning capacity. Exercise daily to manage stress. Punch a bag, go for a run, walk uphill. Get your heartbeat up so that the blood flows throughout your body, waking up your brain so you can think more clearly. Finally, know your limits. You may be able to work, but perhaps not as much as what is demanded of you. Negotiate your time so that your schedule works for you.

In summary, history will write that the healthcare providers during this pandemic were heroes and they are. Still, it is a personal decision to be a hero, and there should be no shame, no feeling of weakness, if your job does not suit you during this time. Stress means it is hard to prioritize, and so during this period, stress is high because healthcare providers have to make very difficult personal decisions. Accepting this difficulty and appreciating that each person makes a decision that works for them is the first step. In this challenging time there is no room to be judgmental, and there is no room to be around judgmental others. There is only room for love, acceptance, and understanding.

2 Responses to “Healthcare Provider Mental Health and Self Care”

  1. Shelly Tannenbaum said

    Nowhere did it say, when you signed up for the job, that you would sacrifice your life and the lives of your loved ones. I also don’t think that anybody expects healthcare providers to die for us either. I can understand the dilemma healthcare providers face: on the one hand, providers are on the front lines and each time they open their doors, get in their cars and go to work, they meet Covid head-on. It’s not just them that could get sick, it’s their loved ones, neighbors and so on. On the other hand, if they don’t go to work and self-isolate, they are betraying their oaths to help and provide medical assistance to those in need. It IS a lose/lose situation. Some specialties can be practiced easier over the telephone or via Zoom; some must be practiced hands-on. Whatever it is, I salute all you medical personnel. You are my heroes!

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