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Managing The Mental Health Of Frontline Health Personnel Should Be Considered A Priority

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Increased levels of stress, fear, anxiety and secondary traumatic stress symptoms are just some of the psychological issues affecting the medical fraternity and social workers on the frontline of the Covid-19 pandemic. This is according to Helen Hajiyiannis, the Director of the Centre for AIDS Development, Research and Evaluation (CADRE).

Hajiyiannis and her team have been tasked with debriefing 45 social workers manning the phones at the National Gender Based Violence Command Centre (GBV CC).

“Since lockdown began, calls to the GBV CC have increased from an average of 150 – 200 a day to about 2 700 – 3 000 calls per day. Calls about GBV, child abuse and neglect and elderly abuse have also increased sharply. Non-GBV related calls, mainly for social relief, have inundated the GBV CC, adding to social workers’ stress and feelings of being overwhelmed,” says Hajiyiannis.

Hajiyiannis says that initially, social workers were anxious and fearful about working during lockdown and potential exposure to the virus for themselves and their families. However, several measures put in place have allayed these fears including the provision of individual headsets, masks, sanitisers by 1st for Women Insurance, and strict prevention protocols at the Command Centre including workspace social distancing, Covid-19 screening and temperature taking every 4-hours. Social workers also attended training in Covid-19 and trauma management.

“These interventions, with the addition of debriefing and support focusing on the impact of lockdown on an individual level and in the workplace, have assisted social workers to deal with their own fears and the impact which Covid-19 has had on the GBV CC,” says Hajiyiannis.

According to Robyn Farrell, CEO of 1st for Women Insurance who provided funding to CADRE on behalf of the GBV CC: “Mental health should be considered key as part of the public health response to Covid-19. Not making it a priority can result in post-traumatic stress disorder.”

Farrell says that while almost every South African is dealing with the ripple effects of Covid-19 as a result of isolation, social distancing, job losses and financial struggles, for those on the frontline, the effects are exacerbated. 

“Social workers working at the GBV CC are dealing with a number of traumatic calls a day that are devastating even under normal circumstances. The provision of a safe space that is non-judgmental and that has allowed social workers to talk about their own fears and anxieties, has had enormous impact,” says Farrell.

Hajiyiannis is advising the social workers, as well as those not on the frontline, to remember the following while navigating the emotional tsunami that is Covid-19:

  • Establishing a new routine at home, as routines have been disrupted by Covid-19. Plan regular activities that help you feel good.
  • Counter isolation from friends and family by setting up virtual lunch and coffee dates via the various technologies available.
  • Spend time on self-care – this is not selfish but necessary. Make time to look after yourself physically, emotionally and spiritually, and ensure adequate rest, nutrition and exercise.
  • A key component of self-care is debriefing. Informal check-in sessions amongst colleagues or family members is also useful to build support and social cohesion.
  • If you feel overwhelmed, there are ways to get support. Talk to your colleagues, your friends, family, or someone that you trust about how you are feeling. Remember you are not alone in this situation – your peers are likely to be experiencing similar things to you – and you can support each other.
  • Be compassionate to yourself and to others. It is okay to say that you are not okay.

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