Helping mental health workers helping people traumatized by war – The Morning Call

The past two years have been extremely difficult for most of us. For me, the backlog of cases due to the pandemic, the influx of patients affected by COVID-19, as well as my active teaching schedule, not to mention the stress of all the unfortunate deaths, many of whom were my close friends . I was definitely “time bankrupt” when I received a long distance call from a woman with a heavy accent. “Hello doctor, this is Ewa from Poland and we need your help. We are burned here. (She meant burned.)

Ewa is a middle-aged psychiatrist who remembered me from a lecture I gave in Warsaw years ago. She continued, “We need some of your strategies to help us keep a cool head.” She was referring to the deluge of Ukrainian refugees – some 3 million of them – who entered Poland and other neighboring countries fleeing their homeland.

Many of these refugees have suffered terrible traumatic stress and grief over the loss of their homes and family members, not to mention their freedom and dignity. This request couldn’t have come at a worse time for me, but I was moved by Ewa’s stridency. She and a number of her colleagues organized my virtual seminar to be accessible to mental health professionals in Poland, Ukraine and surrounding countries.

Ewa’s call for help was not out of the ordinary. Many of my colleagues in the United States and elsewhere suffered from what is known in our profession as burnout or compassion fatigue. Those of us who work in the field of trauma all know (and often treat) professionals who experience symptoms similar to those they attempt to treat in their own patients. Such “side effects” can occur when one takes on too many intense cases at once, overextending one’s own ability to maintain emotional health and remain effective.

As part of their job, emergency response workers are repeatedly exposed to extreme and psychologically toxic situations. The stress that emergency workers experience can be severe. Crisis workers are at risk for anxiety disorders, drug and alcohol abuse, other addictive behaviors, marital and family problems, depression and suicide.

Teaching professionals how to be aware of the warning signs that their work is harming their health is not easy, as caregivers are usually too focused on rescuing others to meet their own needs. When I consult such practitioners, the first thing I teach them is to regularly take their own emotional temperature and also inquire about the status of their colleagues. Recognizing when you’re overwhelmed is key, and asking a trusted colleague to ask questions about it can normalize it, allowing you to candidly examine your condition.

The second step is to teach them to practice mindfulness as a preventative measure against burnout rather than waiting to intervene once signs and symptoms have already set in. I remind them that they are as vulnerable as anyone else to developing adverse effects when exposed. under constant stress.

Then I delineate early signs of overexposure to stressors such as: frequent fatigue, irritation for minor issues, inability to relax, lack of patience or tolerance, lack of interest or time to socialize or engage in recreational activities and a general feeling of apathy. . The tricky part is teaching them to effectively compartmentalize or suppress their own emotions so they don’t get overwhelmed. I use the analogy of being like a partially frozen sponge that only absorbs a limited amount of water, urging them to avoid becoming saturated. I teach them to inoculate themselves psychologically or build mental antibodies before they are overwhelmed with emotions.

These things seem simple, but they are not easy to do, especially when it comes to tragic situations like those that exist in Ukraine. A Ukrainian psychologist told me she worked with a 15-year-old girl who lost her home and her entire family when a missile hit her neighborhood. She was the only survivor of the explosion. She was later trafficked and raped and became pregnant with the child of an unknown perpetrator. The young girl was torn about giving birth to a child she had mixed feelings for, and still reeling from the death of her family members. She attempted suicide, later saying she felt it was the only way out for her. The psychologist told me that she could barely stay steady and stay focused while working with this young girl.

Faced with many heartbreaking stories such as that of this 15-year-old, it can wreak havoc on any human being, no matter how tough.

The focus remains on helping professionals find the right pace and balance in their work, depending on their level of tolerance. And I try to help them manage their feelings of shame if their tolerance level is low and they are unable to do as much as some of their colleagues. Moving forward, these committed professionals need to be reassured that while they may only be able to help a few survivors, they have already made a significant difference in reducing human suffering.

Allentown resident Dr. Frank M. Dattilio is on the faculty of psychiatry at the Perelman School of Medicine at the University of Pennsylvania and is also an associate professor at Harvard Medical School.

Comments are closed.