The Mental Health of Nurses Is Crucial amid the Coronavirus Pandemic

Barry Samaha
Photo credit: JGI/Jamie Grill - Getty Images

From Harper's BAZAAR

Since the coronavirus outbreak, and with some stay-at-home orders still in effect, the masses have adopted a certain ritualistic activity—one that is based on togetherness and reverence. Every day at 7PM, Americans open their doors or windows, and start to whistle, bang pots, blow horns, and applaud. The hour marks the time when frontline workers at hospitals change shifts, and the rousing cheers are intended to show support for those who are putting themselves at risk to help others.

Indeed, the efforts of doctors, nurses, and hospital staff deserve all this adulation, and more. They are the ones treating patients and caring for them daily. Nurses, in particular, are even more emotionally invested, often being the nurturers and the sole presence who’s constant in a patient’s stay. A lot rides on their shoulders, and that takes its toll as much mentality as it does physically. Further, the environment certainly doesn’t help matters.

“The air quality in hospitals, the lighting quality in hospitals, the long hours—all triggers for stress,” says Sarah, a former nurse at Stony Brook Southampton Hospital. “And these are the people that we hope would take care of us.”

Factor in the coronavirus, the shortage of personal protective equipment (PPE), and the restrictions on visitors, and the situation becomes even more taxing. “I just thought of soldiers going to war,” Sarah adds. “What do we do with them after? The mental health support that they will need is huge.”

Beth, the associate chief nurse at The Ohio State University Wexner Medical Center, is well aware of the distress that the global pandemic has had psychologically on the staff at her facility—the fear of not only contracting the disease, but more so passing it along to others. “We have so many folks living with someone at home that are immunocompromised,” she says. “We have people that are a little frightened and worried about infecting themselves because of their children and families at home. But we had no one say that they won’t do this. It’s unbelievable the way they have sacrificed their time and their own health.”

Heroes, to be sure, don’t always wear capes, and they are only human. They need assistance to get through what is unquestionably a trying time. For this, many hospitals have taken measures to give nurses the resources they need, one of which is sourcing programs like Urban Zen Integrative Therapy (UZIT), an initiative founded by designer Donna Karan and famed yoga instructors Rodney Yee and Colleen Saidman Yee in 2009.

“It was during my husband Stephan’s battle with lung cancer at Sloan Kettering over 15 years ago that I made a promise to him that I would take care of the nurses. We witnessed firsthand how hard the nurses worked around the clock on the front lines every day caring for patients. I will never forget his last wish: ‘Donna, whatever you do, take care of the nurses,’” Karan says.

She kept her promise. For more than a decade, UZIT has been instituted at health care facilities across the nation, including Stony Brook Southampton Hospital and The Ohio State University Wexner Medical Center, providing holistic tools to help workers cope in grueling and emotionally draining environments.

“What we really do is try to get people back to the present moment,” explains Rodney. “On the front line of COVID, what you’re really dealing with is exhaustion. And you’re also dealing with sadness and a lot of grief. So we’re really meeting people at those two points. The way you get out of grief is to get to the present moment. It could be as simple as putting your back to the wall and really feeling the wall support you. Keeping your eyes steady on a point of gaze. Possibly even humming. There are also all kinds of poses we can put people in that help the body out of exhaustion.”

“We use many different modalities such as essential oils, Reiki, and train staff in contemplative care,” adds Colleen.

Both Beth and Sarah have seen firsthand the healing capabilities of UZIT. They have more than 20 years’ experience as nurses and are fully aware of the daily pressures that come with the profession. As Beth points out, to get through the long, arduous shifts, especially amid a pandemic, front liners need to have the basic necessities. “We looked at Maslow’s hierarchy of needs,” she says. “The first one is food, shelter, and safety. So we are feeding people free of charge. We have an incredibly generous community who are donating all kinds of restaurant meals. I know that is happening across the country.”

To be sure, many local restaurants and organizations have been providing an ample amount of food carts and equipment to health care workers. But what of mental nourishment? For Beth, the nurses on her staff have benefited greatly from the aid that programs like UZIT offer. She stresses the importance of its psychological properties—something that is even more vital for those living and working in coastal cities, where the coronavirus rates are staggering.

“We really had not had the spike in patients like other places,” she says. “However, the ICUs are full and we did have to expand the units, but not nearly to the extent that they have in New York City. Like everyone else in the country, we’ve restricted our visitors to our patients. And oftentimes, the nurses are the only ones with patients as they die. It’s the nurse standing there with the patient, holding their hand as they pass. It’s tough. Some of the deaths are not easy, and the work is incredibly hard physically, as well as being emotionally difficult.”

Even if nurses working at hospitals with COVID-19 are coping with the circumstances, the lasting impacts are yet to be determined. Like Sarah, Colleen equates the situation to soldiers coming back from war. They are tired, beleaguered, and perhaps unaware of the long-term psychological consequences of working at a time when stakes are high.

“We’re not really going to know the effects until several years down the road,” she says. “We don’t know the toll it is taking as far as PTSD. I’m constantly asked to write about the silver lining, and I have a really hard time with that. I live in New York City, and I see so much suffering. A lot of people that don’t live in an urban environment get to see it.”

Perceptive to this struggle is Urban Zen. According to the company’s CEO, Helen Aboah, reports of the fear and anxiety that nurses are experiencing fall before the organization daily. So with its core mission to “take care of the nurses,” it is providing all the help it can.

“In addition to physical and emotional exhaustion from their shifts, many are separated from their families to minimize the risk of exposing them to the virus without knowing when they will be able to return home. Throughout this crisis, our question has been, who is treating the caregivers? This is where UZIT comes in,” Aboah says.

Normally, UZIT is a paid program that offers in-person instruction by professionals, training members of the staff to be integrated therapists at a facility, along with oils that emit scents that help with mental stability. But seeing how social distancing is a requirement and finances are unsteady, the company will be providing access to free digital content and distributing products donated by Young Living Essential Oils. All hospitals or frontline workers have to do is email urbanuzit@urbanzen.org or direct message Urban Zen’s Instagram account.

Members of the company freely admit that UZIT is not the end-all, be-all for getting nurses through the pandemic. “Sometimes really good psychotherapy is needed,” Colleen says. “We’re not saying that we’re going to replace therapists at all, but we think we have something that is very effective to offer.”

In this moment of uncertainty, when the world seems dark, there are glimmers of light that are peering through—one of them being the support and admiration given to health care workers. They can come in the form of large acts of kindness and generosity that organizations like Urban Zen can provide, or they can be just as simple as opening a window and cheering at a given time.

“There are a lot of beautiful things happening,” Rodney says. “For instance, at seven o’clock, when the whole city is in an uproar of thanks for frontline workers, it’s just tingling to feel that kind of camaraderie and gratitude.”

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