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Coronavirus: Hamilton hospital increasing mental health support for front-line workers

St. Joseph's Healthcare Hamilton is providing increased mental health support to front-line health and community care workers during the coronavirus pandemic.
St. Joseph's Healthcare Hamilton is providing increased mental health support to front-line health and community care workers during the coronavirus pandemic. Lisa Polewski / 900 CHML

St. Joseph’s Healthcare Hamilton is providing mental health support to thousands of front-line workers during the novel coronavirus pandemic as one of five regional hubs across Ontario increasing care options for health workers and community care workers.

In partnership with the Canadian Mental Health Association (CMHA), St. Joseph’s increased support will serve front-line workers in Hamilton and western Ontario and connect those who reach out, either by phone or online, with whatever type of care they might need.

That could range from a one-time phone call to ongoing virtual counselling, peer-to-peer support or an elevated level of care for those whose pre-existing anxiety disorders have been exacerbated by the pandemic.

READ MORE: St. Joseph’s looking at how it will restart services, procedures postponed due to pandemic

A recent survey of health-care workers in Canada found that 43 per cent have experienced high levels of anxiety since the pandemic began, compared to 14 per cent before the pandemic began.

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Dr. Randi McCabe, a clinical psychologist at St. Joe’s who has helped design the services, said there are a variety of factors that have contributed to those higher anxiety levels.

Coping with stress and anxiety during COVID-19 pandemic
Coping with stress and anxiety during COVID-19 pandemic

For workers in long-term care homes or congregate living settings, which have seen the worst of the pandemic, the stress of managing outbreaks or trying to conserve personal protective equipment (PPE) is immense.

“In hospitals, we’re probably better equipped to have the PPE needed,” said McCabe. “But if you think of all those other settings where there’s health care workers or shelters or long-term care, they may not have had the access to the professionals and the materials that they needed to do their job safely.”

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Even for those in hospitals, which haven’t necessarily seen the surge in coronavirus cases that was anticipated, there’s still been an elevated level of stress that has been impacted by the uncertainty of what’s going to happen.

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“Someone said it was kind of like we built the trenches and the stress of the building the trenches, and now we’re waiting,” said McCabe. “Even though we haven’t seen the surge we were planning for, the stress of getting ready for that and all the changes that have had to happen has definitely increased the stress on the health-care providers.”

READ MORE: Pilot project to increase coronavirus testing in long-term care homes in Hamilton, Guelph, Niagara

Those who have been working in areas where people have tested positive for the novel coronavirus have also been faced with a different kind of anxiety — that of potentially bringing the virus elsewhere.

“Although it’s not a surge, it is very stressful. People working on those units are worried about the risk to themselves, and especially their family, when they go home to their family and they’re trying to decontaminate themselves — wash, launder their clothes before they interact with their family.”

The province announced increased support for mental health services earlier this week, coinciding with the CMHA’s Mental Health Week.

McCabe said those who are working in a health-care or community support role and are feeling the mental or emotional burden of the pandemic don’t need to suffer alone.

“We’re here as a community,” McCabe said. “We have your back; we’re there to support you.”

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