“Healthcare workers on the frontlines of fighting the COVID-19 pandemic are being called heroes, and we can all see why”, wrote Matthew Lewis, et al. on Statnews in May. “They have been asked to treat huge numbers of very sick people in a shifting landscape without sufficient personal protective equipment or coordination. Some have seen colleagues fall ill and die while others, in order to protect their own families, live in isolation from loved ones for weeks — or longer.”
This kind of heroic effort can take a psychological toll. To help support the mental health of first responders and healthcare workers during the pandemic, the UNC School of Medicine and UNC Health launched the Heroes Health Initiative in July.
This free mobile application allows healthcare workers and first responders to track their changes in mental health and access mental health resources. The app delivers short mental health self-assessments each week and displays symptom summary reports to help them better understand the state of their own mental health and changes over time. According to UNC, the app also provides links to immediate support and mental health resources, emphasizing free and low-cost services.
“Individual healthcare workers who choose to participate in the initiative download the free Heroes Health app to their iOS (Apple) or Android-compatible smartphone. Each week, the app notifies workers that a brief mental health symptom assessment is available and evaluates symptoms in key domains such as sleep, stress, anxiety/worry, and sadness/depression.”
For healthcare organizations that partner with the Heroes Health Initiative, “the app provides a way to perform proactive worker outreach and the aggregate data necessary to identify times when/areas where more worker support is needed.” It was developed by the UNC Institute for Trauma Recovery, Google Cloud, and volunteers across Alphabet.
In addition, frontline worker feedback on organizational communication and support is provided to leadership each week, providing a valuable opportunity for workers to be heard during very stressful times. Finally, workers have the option to confidentially share their individual mental health summaries with a mental health worker within their organization.
The Heroes Health Initiative was founded by UNC School of Medicine physician Samuel McLean. As a practicing emergency room physician, COVID-19 unit worker, and COVID-19 survivor who contracted the disease and infected two of his family members, McLean understands firsthand the great challenges COVID workers face.
“First responders and healthcare workers are facing a lot of challenges right now,” McLean said. “There is the personal risk of severe illness or death. Much worse, there is the anxiety and fear of infecting loved ones. This is an even greater challenge for first responders or health workers who live with someone particularly vulnerable to COVID-19. It’s important to give first responders and healthcare workers a simple, quick way to regularly check in on their mental health and immediately find resources. It is also important to provide organizations with tools that help empower them to care for each other.”
Even before the pandemic, first responders experienced more stress and were exposed to more traumatic events than many other professions. Repeatedly responding to house fires, scenes of homicides, domestic violence, horrific traffic accidents, drug overdoses, or accidental deaths—especially those of children, has a significant psychological impact that may elicit feelings of sadness, grief, irritability, and mood swings, i.e. symptoms of trauma or depression.
First responders are often exposed to severe trauma early in their careers. At the same time, they frequently operate in a work culture where open expressions of anxiety and grief are perceived as weakness—even by themselves. Unprocessed trauma can have serious mental health consequences. If undiagnosed and untreated, posttraumatic stress, depression, and anxiety may lead to attempts at self-medication with drugs and alcohol.
If substance misuse results in addiction, treating the co-occurring mental health concerns should also be addressed for the best possible outcome. Recovery Ways is dually licensed to treat mental health and addiction concurrently. Our highly qualified treatment team includes two addiction psychiatrists, an affiliated family doctor, and therapists with master’s degrees.
Recovery Ways therapists are experienced in addressing the specific needs of first responders and will develop an individualized treatment plan to address the particular needs of this group of patients. A tool such as the Heroes Health Initiative can help identify mental health concerns of first responders and help them connect them with the appropriate treatment providers.