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Psychological support offered to healthcare workers



Psychological support offered to healthcare workers

(Photo: Rawpixel)

The fight against Covid-19 has taken a heavy toll on healthcare workers who are saving lives while managing personal risks and anxieties. Hundreds of volunteers have stepped up to offer them professional mental health support.

Dr Dhinesh Singh, a Cape Town anaesthetist and member of the SA Society of Anaesthesiologists (SASA), was shocked when he tested positive for Covid-19. He was tested after being told a patient he operated on 11 days prior had tested positive.

“It was a complete shock to me as I was previously well and asymptomatic.”

Singh’s first reaction was denial. Then he worried about who he might have exposed and started personally calling close contacts. He went into isolation and postponed his upcoming work, feeling “tremendous anxiety and guilt because of the inconvenience you’re going to subject a lot of people to”.

Singh was speaking at the online launch of the Healthcare Workers Care Network (HWCN) on Wednesday, 3 June, an initiative established to support healthcare workers during the Covid-19 pandemic and into the future.

Over 500 mental health professionals have volunteered to support healthcare workers through the HWCN, a collaboration between the SA Society of Psychiatrists (Sasop), SA Medical Association (SAMA), Psychological Society of SA (PsySSA), SA Depression and Anxiety Group (Sadag) and SASA.

“South Africa’s healthcare workers are under enormous pressure,” said psychiatrist and Sasop spokesperson Dr Antoinette Miric.

“They are committed to fighting this disease and saving as many lives as possible, all while managing their personal risks and anxieties around the virus, and its impact on their own lives and their loved ones. Healthcare workers are not used to reaching out for support for themselves,” she said.

“However, in these circumstances, self-care is not just a buzzword – it is essential. Healthcare workers need to put on their oxygen masks before helping others.”

The HWCN offers a 24-hour toll-free helpline staffed by 200 volunteer mental healthcare professionals who can offer counselling over the phone and refer callers to professionals in their area. Healthcare workers, including support staff, can also register online to access immediate support.

“There is a dire need for mental health services among doctors,” said Dr Vusumuzi Nhlapho, SAMA general manager.

He and others who spoke at the launch on Wednesday said the Covid-19 pandemic had accelerated work already underway to support healthcare workers’ mental health, which had largely been driven by the late Professor Bernard Janse van Rensburg.

Dr Zamo Mbele, a clinical psychologist and Sadag board member, said the HWCN was also training leaders at healthcare facilities to help them handle the mental healthcare needs of their staff. Over 700 leaders of healthcare facilities have already been trained under the programme.

EMGuidance conducted a survey with over 3,000 healthcare workers in April 2020 that found many doctors, nurses and pharmacists were feeling anxious, overwhelmed and frustrated.

Healthcare workers have faced myriad challenges during the pandemic. Some have struggled to access sufficient personal protective equipment and worry about contracting Covid-19, and passing it on to their families. Because medical procedures, except for emergency medical care, have been suspended, some workers, particularly in the private sector, have experienced financial difficulties.

“They are taking on significant personal risk and too often working without adequate equipment to ensure all of us can receive the care we need. They are our guides, allies and caregivers. They are tireless, innovative, inspirational, stressed, exhausted and too-often undervalued,” said Dr Carolyn Lee, founder of the SASA Wellness Support Group.

Lee said many surgeons have been forced to go into isolation after being exposed to the virus and cannot care for their patients post-operation. She suggested that healthcare workers feel a duty to care for their patients and provide support, which was a struggle when they, and their colleagues were sidelined after being exposed to the virus.

Dr Zamo Mbele, a clinical psychologist and Sadag board member, said the HWCN was also training leaders at healthcare facilities to help them handle the mental healthcare needs of their staff. Over 700 leaders of healthcare facilities have already been trained under the programme.

Throughout the Covid-19 pandemic, healthcare workers have been hailed as heroes.

“Healthcare workers are humans too and this fact gets lost when healthcare workers are heroes,” said Miric.

She said calling them heroes without providing the necessary resources and psychological support was damaging. The HWCN, with the tagline “caring for the carers by the carers”, takes a significant step towards addressing that gap. DM


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