Mental Health professionals focus on post-COVID stress disorder

As hope is on the horizon from the pandemic with vaccine rollout and cases dropping, mental health professionals are focusing on another consequence of the pandemic, dealing with post-COVID stress disorder.

After more than a year of sustained stress and loss, studies are revealing a high level of psychological distress and Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) symptoms, especially for those who suffered from COVID-19 or are on the front lines.

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"What we're hearing now is thinking about this idea of how do we manage the prolonged state of stress," said Dr. Jonathan Bae, Associate Chief Medical Officer for Patient Safety and Clinical Quality for the Duke University Health System.

Bae and his team are looking at ways to help the staff of more than 20,000 cope with the traumatic situations so many have endured amid the pandemic, both professionally and personally.

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"The resources needed for that are a little bit different, both in terms of, in the moment, creating safe spaces for conversation just to talk about what's happening, as well as to be prepared for supporting the mental health of our team members and what we anticipate in an increasing amount over the next six months," Bae said.

The first strategy is immediate support for emotional needs, according to Bae.

"We have chaplains and social workers that round that offer emotional support. We've really focused on trying to create ways for people to pull for that support when a troubling event happens," he said.

"The most targeted efforts are on the spaces where COVID has hit the hardest," he said. "That includes our emergency rooms and our intensive care units and our medical wards. And, so already we have teams that kind of want to walk in to support those folks in the moment, but we've been increasing availability of options like we have a program called Conversations with Colleagues, which is essentially creating the place of a safe conversation where people can come and just talk about how hard all of this has been."

The longterm support strategy is what Bae and his team are developing for what he and other mental health professionals anticipate will be a growing need over the months to come.

Bae says, while his focus professionally is supporting health care workers at Duke Health, everyone has felt a loss in one way or another in the pandemic, and talking about what you are feeling is an important first step in caring for mental health.

"I think naming the emotion and validating that," he said. "There have been tremendous losses we've all experienced as a country, some of those losses are, are the loss of a loved one, but all of us have lost, or many of us have lost something through this. I think it's okay to acknowledge that and to name that emotion as sadness or grief or disappointment, so we can begin to heal."
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