Taking care of caretakers: Mental health workers focus on self-care, coping during COVID-19

Michael Hutchins
Herald Democrat
Stressors have weighed heavy on mental health professionals while requests for counseling services have peaked.

Over the past year, millions of people have coped with the effects of COVID-19 and its impact on the daily life. While the disease itself can be deadly, those who never contract the disease are not immune to its effects.

Throughout the pandemic, mental healthcare workers have tirelessly worked to provide a level of normality and support to their clients in this unprecedented time filled with uncertainty, fear and worry.

While these workers continue to provide support to those in need, the question remains, who supports them when they are in need?

The Texoma Community Center has received a $188,000 grant for counseling services related to COVID-19. [Michael Hutchins / Herald Democrat[

"It has been exceptionally taxing on our mental health providers," Texoma Community Center Director of Adult Mental Health Services Amberlee Conley said. "Often people kind of forget about the providers. People tend to see the mental health workers as sort of robots. You are made to work for these sort of things when in reality we are humans experiencing the same stress...the same pandemic."

Amberlee Conley

The community center, which provides mental hearth services for the Texoma region, has seen significant changes over the past year. Due to the pandemic, many of its services have gone virtual.

All the while, the demand for mental health services has been increasing.

Vicky Lindsey

"We are stretched to the limit with our resources, but somehow on a daily basis we come together and find everything we need for our community and each other," TCC Counseling Director Vicky Lindsey said.

In some cases, the physical, in-person meetings and therapy sessions provided a much needed resource and source of socialization for clients. One client, in an effort to have that outreach, invited someone to her apartment. She ultimately contracted COVID-19 and passed away, Conley said.

"We are seeing a lot of people where they were maintaining last year are now exhibiting pretty severe anxiety," Lindsey noted common concerns include anxiety, a lack of resources and other needs. 

"The isolation associated with COVID gives a lot of time for self introspection and so people are beginning to explore past trauma that they are experiencing," Lindsey added.

The nearly 100 mental health providers with the center have continued to provide services as much as possible. However, it not uncommon for the providers to walk away with some of the trauma they are treating, Conley said. This adds onto their own personal stressors and needs during the pandemic.

While dealing with personal stressors related to the pandemic, mental health professionals sometimes have to deal with taking on the stressors of clients.

"A common term we talk about in mental health is vicarious trauma," Conley said. "You provide support for people who are experiencing trauma for an extended period of time. Often that person providing that support walks away with some of that trauma."

Lindsey described the phenomenon as compassion fatigue.

"We are are also encountering our own issues," she said. "There probably isn't one of us on staff who hasn't encountered some impact from COVID."

Both mental health providers said the organization has taken steps to help its workers meet their own needs during this difficult time. Part of that comes in the form of transparency and community togetherness on all levels of the organization.

Through open communication, mental health providers are encouraged to speak up about their own ongoing mental health and needs. In part, this includes listening to the workers about their own needs rather than simply assuming them, both said.

"I know that I can call on the staff members that make things happen, and they do that without hesitation," Lindsey said.

Workers often meet virtually to discuss their situations and work through Microsoft teams. In some cases this includes virtual lunches and dinners.

These efforts have include taking steps, even minor ones, to take some of that burden away. As an example. Lindsey said a worker has a family member who is vulnerable to respiratory issues. In this case, allowances have been made to allow them to work from home, alleviating some of that worry.

Texoma Community Center is located at 315 McLain St. in Sherman.

In other cases, some workers seek therapy for themselves, and employee assistance programs can help in that effort. Some workers have started a routine of daily meditation and reflection as a way of coping, Lindsey said.

Self care has been a focus for the community center over the past year. Leaders in the organization regularly take efforts to check in and see how workers are providing their own care, Conley said.

"We literally start discuss it in the first interview. It is a big part of our culture with encouraging them to use self care."