We are living in a difficult and trying time. The polarization in our community and surrounding areas is intense and somehow, public health has become political.
In my practice as a mental health counselor, I regularly see people who are struggling with stressors related to the COVID-19 situation. For some, it’s a primary cause of distress; for others, it makes the other things they are already dealing with that much harder. I have seen families torn apart because family members are, as one person said, “on different sides of the COVID divide.”
For people working in health care, the stress can be overwhelming, leading to insomnia, depression, anxiety, burnout — or perhaps all of the above in some combination.
On social media we see people complaining about wearing masks, about how long it takes to get tested and to get test results, about having to restrict their businesses due to the virus. Think for a moment about what people working in health-related professions all over the United States are dealing with. Health departments and clinics and hospitals all over the U.S., and indeed, the world, are overwhelmed by the increase in numbers of cases of COVID. It is overwhelming, and it’s going to get worse before it gets better. Would you be in the shoes of health care workers? Working your heart out, putting yourself at risk, only to be criticized, perhaps even threatened?
For business owners and their employees, the idea of possibly having to shut down again is of course frightening, and that fear often leads to anger. Some of the anger may get directed at people whose job it is to help us contain the virus. Public health mandates may indicate that things need to shut down for a while. The consensus among the world’s best epidemiologists is that we must use the tools we have at our disposal: social distancing, hand washing, wearing face masks, staying home — all to control the spread of the virus. If we do not, the situation will continue to get worse. More people will suffer and even die.
This is a time when we need to support each other. We need to support our community health workers, whether in clinics, hospitals, testing centers, health departments. People need to be encouraged, not discouraged or disparaged. We especially need strong leadership from the “higher ups” — the city council, the mayor, the governor — to say, “This is real. This is what we all have to do in the short term to save lives, and to make things better in the long term. This is not political, this is science.” Period. End of story.
My mind goes to World War II England. The needs of the whole, concern for the common good and yes, patriotism, brought people together to fight a common enemy. People made huge sacrifices, suffering shortages of food and essential supplies. People made and used blackout curtains at night, though it made life difficult. People helped each other in myriad ways. No one harassed the health workers. No one insisted the threat wasn’t real. We need that sense of community now. COVID is our common enemy. We need to pull together, support the people who are on the front lines, and we need leadership reminding us that we are in this together.
So, I am asking the following: Put yourselves in the shoes of overworked and exhausted health workers, and remember patience; thank people rather than criticize them; and if you are in a leadership position, take the proverbial “bully pulpit” and speak up for science and public health.
Nancy Seldin of Missoula is a mental health professional who has Master of Public Health and Doctor of Education degrees. She was an adjunct professor of counseling at the University of Montana for 20 years, and served as a critical incident stress management provider in New York City for three weeks after 9/11.
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