New mental health practices help frontline workers


NEW ORLEANS, Louisiana (AP) — As a doctor who treats seriously ill patients, Sonia Malhotra is no stranger to having to care for the dying.

But the coronavirus pandemic has challenged her and her team in ways she says she couldn’t have imagined.

“The sheer number of patients we’ve had to take care of at the end of life has been overwhelming and surreal, to say the least,” said Malhotra, the director of palliative medicine and supportive care at University Medical Center New Orleans and assistant professor of medicine and pediatrics at Tulane University.

Soon after the city’s pandemic outbreak, UMCNO launched virtual psychological meetings for employees, allowing workers to meet with psychologists when needed on a voluntary basis.

And attending physicians like Malhotra began holding daily check-ins with residents, trainees and other hospital staff to intercept workers who may be struggling.

The hospital has also launched a bereavement program where health care providers stay in touch with families who lost loved ones to the virus for a full year after their loved one has died. It not only helps grieving families but “it’s also good for our mental well-being,” Malhotra said.

Mental health experts say talking to colleagues and in some cases a psychologist is an important first step, but health care workers may be needing more than that after three months of caring for sick and dying patients and no end to coronavirus pandemic in sight.

UMCNO is one of the few hospitals in the New Orleans area allowing up to three family members to visit dying loved ones, though only for a certain period of time and in full protective gear.

The rest of the time, “we substitute for those loved ones and hold our patients’ hands,” Malhotra said.

Some experts warn workers may start to experience anxiety, depression, post-traumatic stress or acute stress.

“Over time, we all are vulnerable, and we’ll start to break down, no matter how good we are,” said Patrick Bordnick, dean of the School of Social Work at Tulane University.

Bordnick says that for workers to have stamina and resilience in the months to come, self-care is vital, and that means a complete mental, physical and emotional break from the job for several minutes each day – and in some cases days away from the job, since the stresses of the pandemic don’t go away once workers get home.

To help employees achieve self-care, Bordnick and a team at Tulane created, a “one-stop” for self-care resources for employees to access free of charge and without distracting ads, to quickly and easily find something of interest to achieve mindfulness and meditation whenever they need it, whether for a few hours or just a few minutes.

The site includes healthy mental “indulgences” such as free concerts, virtual art galleries, and cooking and painting segments with New Orleans chefs and artists.

“Just like wearing a mask is a priority to stay safe, taking care of your emotional and mental needs should be a priority, too,” Bordnick said. “That’s just what we need to do.”

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