Marissa Robbins, a surgical physician’s assistant at Rochester General Hospital, has always invested in her mental health — she sees a therapist, exercises and spends time with her family every Sunday to cope with the everyday stress of her job.
That all changed in early March when Robbins, 27, was reassigned to work in the hospital’s Intensive Care Unit and at a COVID testing site, which she estimates tested 800 people a day in its first two weeks. And while being present for the initial wave of testing felt like a call to action, Robbins and other hospital employees working on the forefront have suffered emotional consequences.
“[The pandemic] greatly affected [my mental health] because I was constantly in a state of fear as we didn’t know what was going to happen,” Robbins said. “We didn’t know if we were going to get the amount of people like New York City did.”
Hospitals throughout New York state are aware of the stress their employees are under and provide healthcare workers with a variety of options to support their mental health.
While Robbins had similar support in Rochester, she said she couldn’t attend wellness lectures or use the other mental health resources provided by the hospital because she had to be “laser-focused” on her job.
“When people are ventilated in the ICU, we sometimes will turn them face down,” Robbins said, describing one of the tactics used to expand patients’ lungs. “When that happens, they get pressure ulcers. People will have necrotic tissue all over their face, all over their body. It’s hard to see because as you’re trying to save these people, there are other consequences.”
Rep. Paul Tonko, D-Amsterdam, introduced a mental health research bill in April, which aimed to help health care workers process daily mental trauma.
The legislation, included in the Health and Economic Recovery Omnibus Emergency Solutions Act, would require the National Institute of Mental Health to fund research on how COVID-19 has affected essential employees’ mental well-being. The Democratic-controlled House passed the HEROS Act on a party-line vote, but the Republican-controlled Senate has yet to consider the measure.
In a recent statement, Tonko noted that the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention in June revealed more than 40% of adults in the U.S. reported struggling with their mental health. The numbers show a “widespread, quiet suffering” within American households that will have lasting consequences, he said.
“My COVID-19 Mental Health Research Act would help us better understand these mental and behavioral health challenges and equip us with knowledge and tools to help [frontline workers] manage their health and build resiliency,” Tonko said.
Representatives at the Albany Medical Center “applauds Rep. Tonko’s efforts” because they are “committed to providing an environment that promotes the health and well-being of its workforce.”
“We offer a robust Employee Assistance Program through Capital EAP with free counseling and a host of other services for employees and their family members,” Albany Med spokeswoman Sue Ford said in an email. “In addition, Albany Med has a wide range of wellness offerings, and a multi-disciplinary committee — called Support Our Staff — on call to assist Albany Med staff who are experiencing any form of crisis.”
Albany psychologist Tania Khan said experiences like Robbins’ are why research during the pandemic should be considered essential because mental professionals are also trying to figure out the best way to treat their patients.
“It’s really dangerous to make sweeping generalizations or assumptions about people just based on their personal experience.” Khan said. “It’s not my job to give advice based on my life experiences. It is based on treatments that we know are effective for broader groups, not just a certain type of individual. Without that research, we can’t make the conclusion about what would work.”
Khan also said workers’ mental health should be prioritized not only for their sake, but for society’s well-being.
“We all live in a system and those of us who are not health care workers rely on hospitals to take care of us,” Khan said. “[Essential] employees are working around the clock, and if they don’t have the physical time to [take care of themselves], they’re not getting the care they need to deliver the services we need.”
While New York state appears to have temporarily controlled the spread of the virus, Robbins and Rochester General Hospital are anticipating a new wave of infections in the fall. The facility has prepared more beds and negative pressure rooms, and Robbins’ is preparing to care for her mental health by resuming therapy through Telehealth.
“I wish I could have gone to New York City and done more because I feel like I didn’t even do enough, which is something I’ve talked about with my therapist,” Robbins said.
On their website, the CDC lists signs of stress, coping and resilience techniques and provides resources on where essential workers can get mental health support. The specific page for emergency responders, a job that rarely allows time for preparation, cautions the side effects of burnout and secondary traumatic stress. A third page also provides an instructional video and curriculum titled, “Caring for Yourself While Caring for Others,” which informs healthcare employees how to manage the risks of their job while caring for their personal safety.