Estelle Sinkiins
3 minute read
8 Jun 2020
13:14

Providing mental health support for frontline workers

Estelle Sinkiins

Self-care is not just a buzzword, but rather an absolutely essential way for South Africa’s frontline medical staff to ensure they don’t end up suffering from post-traumatic stress, anxiety and burnout.

Self-care is not just a buzzword, but rather an absolutely essential way for South Africa’s frontline medical staff to ensure they don’t end up suffering from post-traumatic stress, anxiety and burnout.

To try and help them, psychologists and psychiatrists across KZN have joined forces to provide pro bono mental healthcare during the Covid-19 pandemic. This “mental health first aid” is vital to ensure doctors, nurses, social workers and other staff caring for patients can cope with the added stress the virus has placed on their personal and professional lives.

Clinical psychologist Suntosh Pillay and psychiatrist Dr Suvira Ramlall are the local co-ordinators of the KZN branch of the Healthcare Workers Care Network’s ‘Caring for the Carers by the Carers’ programme. 

Supported by the South African Society of Psychiatrists (Sasop), the South African Medical Association, the Psychological Society of South Africa, the South African Society of Anaesthesiologists, and the South African Depression and Anxiety Group, the programme offers all healthcare workers free support, pro bono therapy, resources, training and psycho-education.

The Healthcare Workers Care Network (HWCN) is concerned that the virus and the ever-increasing number of cases being dealt with by healthcare workers is likely to leave them feeling exhausted, stressed, and at high risk of physical and mental illness.

Pillay, who is based in Durban, said those on the frontline [doctors, nurses, community healthcare workers, field workers, hospital and clinic personnel, hospital laundry staff and porters] are all feeling a lot of fear and anxiety about contracting the virus.

“They are worried about how protected they will be; if there will be enough personal protective equipment (PPE); and if they do have some, how long it will last.

“We are also hearing from a lot of people about the rise of stigma around the disease. Healthcare workers are saying that friends and family are seeing them as people who will bring home the virus and make them ill,” he added.

In the longer term, Pillay believes frontline staff will also need to cope with issues of trauma and grief, especially if their friends and family die or are infected with Covid-19.

Ramlall agreed. “Those with Covid have a very lonely death. Patients can’t see their family, they have no contact with the body, they can’t attend funerals and cannot do any of the usual rites and rituals they normally would when a person dies and which are so important at a time of grief.”

Pillay and Ramlall say it is vital that frontline health workers invest in their own mental health so they will have the strength to help patients, families and colleagues cope with someone infected with the virus, especially at the later stages of the disease.

Dr Antoinette Miric, a psychiatrist and Sasop spokesperson, said exposure to the virus, long working hours and psychological distress, coupled with the need to look after their own families, has meant that those on the frontline face the very real chance of burnout.

Every new Covid-19 diagnosis also means longer hours, less sleep, and increasingly irregular meals, resulting in weakened immune systems and lower resilience. “Healthcare workers are not used to reaching out for support for themselves,” Miric said. “Still, I hope that this pandemic helps them to realise that they need to look after themselves first physically and emotionally, before they are able to look after others.”