Even before the onset of covid-19, our world was in the midst of another epidemic. Mental health and emotional wellness are vital elements of overall wellbeing. We cannot separate these aspects of our human functioning. Rather we must address health from a holistic perspective.
I would venture to say that all of us are touched by times of darkness or emotional turbulence over the course of our lives. We can expect to be touched by loss and grief throughout our lifetime, which comes with its own unique type of mental and emotional challenge as we come to cope and heal from significant changes in our lives. When we are not in a state of balance to begin with, it is common that the process of loss and grief could potentially become complicated in nature.
We live in a fast-paced society with greater and greater demands on our time, attention and energy. This alone can lead to an imbalance in our lives that affects our basic self-care and eventually our overall sense of wellbeing. And even though, many people have the opportunity ~ welcomed or unwelcomed ~ to slow down right now, the abrupt change in daily lifestyle can be extremely stressful.
And then there are the millions of people who continue to show up to their vocational responsibilities so that we can continue to access care, support and the necessities of daily life.
Vocations of Service
For those involved in healthcare and social services, there can be a susceptibility to the development of stress related imbalances, emotional exhaustion, and mental health challenges at the best of times. There is a high risk of burnout in any helping profession.
● In 2019, the Bureau of Labor Statistics reported “Social workers have one of the highest rates of injuries and illnesses of all occupations.”
● Approximately 1/3 of nurses report high levels of burnout (De Keyrel, 2018).
● In the past five years, over 40 million family caregivers provided 37 billion hours of care for loved ones. The value of this care is estimated at $470 billion. Half of adult caregivers say it’s moderately or very difficult to balance work and caregiving. Three-quarters of the respondents found it to be stressful, and more than half found it to be overwhelming (Aging in Place, 2020).
But, let’s remember, high risk does not mean it’s inevitable.
How we care for our own mental health is just as important as being present for others who may be experiencing their own challenges whether that is in the role of a paid service provider or a family/friend caregiver.
There are also those individuals who have been diagnosed with mental illnesses that are not part of what any of us might expect to experience in our lifetime. Bipolar disorder, schizophrenia, major depression are just a few examples of common mental illnesses that people are experiencing today. During times of crisis, symptoms may be exacerbated requiring access to more frequent or emergent services. This in turn puts additional pressure on mental health professionals to maintain a level of service that is likely greatly hampered by our current state of self-isolation and physical distancing.
Resistance Creates Isolation and Suffering
Stigma about mental illness whether formally diagnosed or part of a natural response to something traumatic makes accessing support and services that much more challenging. Our resistance to talking openly about mental health creates a barrier to the very energy and support we all need in order to strengthen our emotional and mental capacity and open up to healing.
Mental illness makes us uncomfortable. We have made huge advances with regard to opening the discussion, but we still have a long way to go. I think the fact of the matter is that so many more people are experiencing mental illness and mental health challenges that we are forced to begin talking more about it. It is no longer the plight of those on the fringes of society ~ those people we can simply ignore so we fool ourselves into believing that we are somehow immune to it ourselves.
Post-traumatic stress is another common experience for first responders and other heath and social service professionals. Paramedics and police officers are often the first on the scene at an array of traumas and tragedies and are left with the impact of not only the images of what they have witnessed but also the emotional energy within which they are met when they respond at the scene. Depression, addiction, and suicide are real outcomes for those who are challenged to cope with exposure to trauma whether in the workplace or personally.
Suicide rates are on the rise in our society. People are choosing to take their lives in response to overwhelming pain. For a long time, suicide has been a taboo subject ~ one that we don’t really want to talk about. But, we must. We must make it acceptable to talk about the emotional and mental suffering that many experience with as much ease as we discuss the physical challenges that people live with.
The stigma around mental health challenges is a major barrier for those working in helping professions. At the same time that they are being told that burnout and post-traumatic stress syndrome are real possibilities in their field, they are also informed that they cannot be effective in their role with others if they are struggling themselves personally. Instead of this being an encouragement to reach out for help, it is often interpreted as some personal failure on the part of the professional. Fear around job security or trying to survive a toxic workplace ends up creating barriers to accessing supports. None of us are immune from the realities of what we are currently facing in the covid-19 crisis and we can expect that the impact of this experience will reverberate for some time to come.
How are we going to use what we learn as we navigate our way through this pandemic. Currently, the majority of the focus has been on minimizing the spread of the virus through physical actions we can take, but what about our emotional and mental health? What about the emotional and mental health of those still showing up every day to be of service? Are our current systems well equipped to respond to the needs of service providers on every level? Are we even talking about it?
We all have responsibility for our mental and emotional health and wellbeing. We have a responsibility to each other to respond with compassion and a willingness to understand what might be helpful. This is a time of great opportunity to learn from the people within the system what the system needs to heal.
Let’s take that opportunity.
Another instalment in the Conscious Service Series for Helping Professionals and Personal Caregivers.