COVID-19 Mental Health: Support Workers Struggle to Cope

Everyone I work with is struggling in some way or another.

Posted Apr 21, 2020

 Matthias Zomer/Pexels
Source: Matthias Zomer/Pexels

COVID-19, formally known as the novel coronavirus, was declared a pandemic by the World Health Organization on March 11, 2020. It has become increasingly important to understand not only the physical symptoms but also the impact on mental health.

While the focus of current research is primarily on nurses and doctors, or the impact of social isolation, it is important to consider how the mental health of other professional caregivers and the populations they support are impacted. As a developmental support worker and advocate for vulnerable populations, I understand how working in a high-stress environment may lead to mental health conditions especially when supporting those with complex physical or behavioural needs through a crisis.

The Trauma and Mental Health Report (TMHR) interviewed many individuals currently working with vulnerable populations during the COVID-19 pandemic. Toni (name changed to protect anonymity), an individual supporting adults with complex developmental diagnoses, shared how added stress has impacted her mental health and the mental health of her clients:

“Everyone I work with is struggling in some way or another. I am currently in a position where I am trying to support my clients who are experiencing a decline in their mental health, while also trying to cope myself. My anxiety and fear for the future has never been so high, but I am trying to put on a brave face when I go to work.”

­­Hannah (name changed), a registered practical nurse in gerontology, stated that her mental health has also been impacted:

“I have experienced a dramatic increase in my anxiety lately and fear for myself, family, and friends and especially my residents. My emotions have been extremely labile and subject to my reactivity caused by external circumstances, much of which are beyond my control. In saying this, much of these feelings are valid considering the circumstances.”

Others, like Dominic (name changed), who works in acute psychiatry, commented that working during the pandemic has caused little change in his mental health:

“I try my best not to overthink what is going on in the world right now so I am able to avoid feeling overly panicked or scared. I have been following the guidelines that we receive at work to lower the spread of infection. Currently, there are no confirmed cases at our site, so once the first one occurs, I feel I will start to worry a bit more.”

A common theme among those interviewed was that they are all experiencing additional stress caused by changes in their clients’ behaviours that have impacted both their mental health and ability to support their clients effectively. Caroline (name changed), a registered practical nurse in gerontology working on a dementia support floor, explained:

“Many residents depend on a routine, but since COVID-19, residents are forced to find their new norm. They are no longer able to live a normal life and are forced to self-isolate which has increased suicide watch. Residents are constantly expressing to me how lonely they feel and how they fear for their well-being every day. Nursing school taught me how to administer medication, put in catheters, and many other nursing skills but I was never taught how to handle suicidal residents. Every day I am hearing residents say things like, ‘I want to kill myself’ or ‘there is nothing to live for now’, and I feel this pressure to say the right thing, but what is the right thing to say? I find myself lying awake at night wondering and hoping that I said the right thing. This is a constant fear and the sad thing is that this is only the beginning.”

Others, like Chris (name changed), who supports individuals with autism spectrum disorder and fetal alcohol spectrum disorder, described how changes in routine have had a huge impact on his clients:

“Routine is extremely important to the residents. Routine is how they view and go about their day. So, by not being able to go out into the community or go to school, their entire schedule is now not there. It’s definitely been hard for them to understand and work through because we (staff and residents) don’t know when this is going to end. There’s been anxiety, confusion, and more. They’re not used to being this much out of routine and being stuck inside for so long. What the residents go through, we support staff go through as well with them. We’re there at every shutdown, escalation, and everything you can imagine. If there was some way to make all this stop for them; I would do it.”

All those interviewed expressed concern about the current mental health of the populations they support, anxiety related to themselves spreading COVID-19 to medically complex individuals, and increased difficulty managing the behaviours and mental health of their clients. But they also commented on how they are attempting to stay positive and cope. In Chris’s words:

“I always try my best to remember the good days during these especially hard ones. As much as I want to run and hide, I have to be there for the residents, not only because it’s my job, but because I care for them so much that they help me keep going through all this. No matter how stressful this can all be, they mean the world to me and they need all the support they can get right now.”

By Jessica Ferrier, contributing writer, The Trauma and Mental Health Report and Robert T. Muller, chief editor, The Trauma and Mental Health Report.

Copyright Robert T. Muller.