In an effort to contain the spread of COVID-19, governments have responded by implementing a wide range of policies to prevent health care systems from being overwhelmed. In Canada, those decisions have been working and our hospitals have been successful in managing the number of COVID-19 cases.
However, these decisions have had other consequences. It is no surprise that since COVID-19 began to dominate news headlines, additional anxiety and stress have impacted people’s mental health. When physical distancing policies were implemented, followed by shutting down most parts of the economy, many mental health experts warned about the inevitable mental health strain this will place on people. Melissa McFadden is the Clinical Manager of Mental Health at Queensway Carleton Hospital, “We are concerned for our community during these unprecedented times. People are struggling with isolation, extreme stress, grief of their way of life, and increased fear for their health and their family’s health. Our commitment is there and available to support our community now and after we get back to some normalcy.
While mental health impacts are felt broadly, those impacts are even more pronounced for those with existing mental health conditions. Supporting those patients is front and centre for Melissa and her team in the mental health unit. “Our first priority is to provide care to our patients. To stabilize, get them on a path to recovery and connected to community resources so they can get some form of normality back into their lives. What’s happened with COVID-19 is that community resources are harder to access so we will be supporting them in our outpatient department.”
Just as with the rest of the hospital, staff in the mental health unit have needed to adapt how they provide care. Psychiatrists have started conducting sessions by phone, the unit is adapting programing for inpatients, and supportive education has been created for mental health patients with suspected COVID or COVID positive admitted to the ACE unit. However, even when making the best of a difficult situation, every professional feels they should be doing more, “We haven’t stopped since we are an essential service. However, we feel that we may not be as effective without that face to face connection that is so important to the clinician-patient relationship. Prior to the pandemic, access to community resources was easier. With that limitation now, it creates a fear that some patients may not be getting the help they need.”
While there are clear instructions on how to limit the spread of COVID-19, everyone is susceptible to the pressures it places on mental health. Hospital staff and health care workers, particularly in the mental health unit, understand this firsthand. “You’re dealing with people that are struggling, very much in the exact same way you’re struggling. You have all of those emotions, fears, and anxieties.”
“Everyone is feeling the stress that this pandemic has brought on, whether you work in ICU, in ALC, in the ED, or elsewhere. Having the comradery and companionship that creates a sense of team is so important in helping everyone get through this time.” Melissa expressed, “We are here for all QCH staff. I’ve had staff in my office just to sit and chat and talk it out. We’re here to support in any way we possibly can.”
Back out in the community, that is a message QCH and regional hospitals have been making as well. While the “stay at home” message has been very well followed by Ottawa residents, earlier this week the Chiefs of Staff from the Ottawa area hospitals released a statement expressing that if you need care, hospitals are here to support you. “Our volume is down in mental health, but a lot of that has to do with the fact that the messaging is getting out and people are listening to ‘stay at home’. The people that we’re seeing, and the reason why they’re so acute, is because those are the people that have flagged or triggered their loved ones that they are decompensating.” said Melissa.
While there is no sugar coating the seriousness of the work that is needed, staff in the mental health unit are resilient and not afraid to work hard when called upon. “Mental health is going to be that echo pandemic when this all is said and done. But we’re getting ourselves prepared to knuckle down and work even that much harder when the virus starts to wane.”
There is no doubt the impacts of COVID-19 will cast a shadow long after the virus itself has been contained. Our mental health professionals will be on the front line of that wave and they are getting ready for it. “We are all really proud to be affiliated with one of the best teams. We are very, very strong, we are very committed and we are not afraid of hard work. We understand that what’s coming is going to be challenging for each and every one of us, aside from what’s challenging today.”
Knowing that their post-COVID-19 work will be needed for quite some time, the mental health unit is starting to put things in place to support their patients. “We’re being proactive and connecting to make sure that we’re limiting the volume of crisis that will come upon us. That’s the kind of things that we’re doing. We recognize this is happening, we know it’s going to happen, so we’re getting prepared.” said Melissa.
Though she knows it is going to be a lot of hard work in the months and even years ahead, Melissa remains optimistic and committed to supporting the community that she and her team serves, “We think there will be a ripple effect from The Big Bang, so to speak, for a very long time to come. I’m grateful for the talented and committed Mental Health team here at Queensway Carleton, and we’re ready to support our community, no question.”