Since I started out as a Clinical Mental Health Counselor ( CMHC ), one of the populations I have specialized in working with is healthcare workers . I have a small private practice that is not connected to electronic health records or to a larger healthcare system , which has helped my clients feel safer knowing that others could not access their confidential information .
Prior to becoming a CMHC , I was a nurse for more than 10 years . Additionally , my partner is a physician , so I ’ m deeply familiar with this specialty — personally and professionally . In March 2020 , when COVID-19 hit the United States , I started getting emails from physician clients I had not seen for a while asking for support and requiring acute care .
Right away , I noticed two trends developing among healthcare workers . One was extreme burnout and grief from the acuity and complexity of patients and the amount of death , loneliness , and heartbreak they were seeing . Another was physicians who were struggling with unfamiliar free time as their elective procedures were canceled . Many times , both groups felt like they could not “ burden ” their families with their concerns ; some were living apart from their family in a hotel to avoid exposing them to COVID . Some found it difficult to talk to colleagues , possibly due to the stigma around mental health , or even the fear of completely falling apart if they started to open up .
Treating Physicians Rattled by Burnout , Grief
COVID & ME : Helping Healthcare Workers Cope With the Pandemic
Jennifer Reckner , LPC , NCC , CCTP-II , practices from an anti-oppressive and fat-positive framework at her private practice . She focuses primarily on trauma and eating disorders from an embracive perspective , incorporating the mind and body . A former nurse , she also specializes in helping healthcare workers as they may struggle with moral injury , compassion fatigue , vicarious trauma , burnout , and other stressors . She strives to help overcome obstacles through mental health education , psychotherapy , community advocacy , and a supportive and inspirational environment . for them to continue functioning and serving their communities . Providing a holding space for emotions and doing the trauma stabilization work of “ finding safety ” proved vital . Whether they found safety in their hotel room or home , on a bike ride , or in their own internal working system , establishing a concrete method of “ closing the stress-response cycles ” helped them find control in what felt like an uncontrollable situation .
Treating Physicians Undone by Free Time
Conversely , other healthcare professionals suddenly found themselves with free time , some for the first time in their lives . As elective procedures were canceled , surgeons and interventionalists had open schedules . For some , free time created stress and anxiety , as they were not used to sitting with their thoughts , feelings , and internal experiences .
I noticed them avoiding spending time at home — not because they didn ’ t love their families , but because they didn ’ t know what to do or how to act . This sometimes brought up insecurities that they had successfully suppressed for years . Having free time , and possibly emotional space , meant being able to process some complex trauma responses , finding an internal sense of self-worth , and letting go of some control .
Seeking a Rational Response to an Abnormal Situation
We ’ ve all seen the meme on social media of the bowls in the china cabinet pushing against the glass door , knowing that they will fall and break if the cabinet is opened . My clients felt like those bowls — and if they couldn ’ t avoid breaking , who would tend to the patients lining their hospital rooms and hallways ? Many also felt anger towards their communities and , at times , even family members , as a chunk of the American population denied COVID-19 was real and refused to take simple precautions . That anger was topped off with resentment over pay cuts despite working harder on the front lines .
Unlike pre-COVID times , there wasn ’ t much advocacy work paired with anger . Though clients could advocate for themselves at work , with limited resources , advocacy would often lead to more anger , which would increase the likelihood of moral injury and burnout . Shifting towards acceptance seemed necessary
Uniquely , I found myself navigating , simultaneously , the same trauma as my clients . I had to change the way I practiced to care for both myself and my clients . I shifted to grief work and a more person-centered holding space for my clients . I relied on my counseling microskills of supportive reflection , summarizing , self-involving statements of disclosure when clinically appropriate , and emotional identification with validation . So much of the work became normalization and validation of what appeared to be a rational response to a very abnormal situation and looking underneath the surface of anger .
Ultimately , I have observed that many of the healthcare providers I worked with have better prioritized themselves and their personal lives to find overall greater well-being while still working in an ongoing pandemic , even with ongoing stressors and frustrations within their workplace and community .
2 The Advocate Magazine 2022 , Issue # 3 American Mental Health Counselors Association ( AMHCA ) www . amhca . org