Matching health workers with peers to ease stress of fighting pandemic

A video conference screenshot.
Members of the Department of Psychiatry and Behavioral Sciences at the University of Minnesota meet in a Zoom call this week to discuss updates to the Minnesota Resilience Action Plan. The program is designed to help health care workers at the University deal with the stresses of treating COVID19 patients. Reporter Alisa Roth (upper left) got to listen in.
Screenshot, Courtesy of the University of Minnesota

Being a health care worker dealing with COVID-19 is stressful, even in a place like Minnesota, which is in better shape than, say, New York or Michigan.

Even just anticipating situations they might come up against is stressful, said Dr. Sophia Vinogradov, head of the psychiatry and behavioral health department at the University of Minnesota.

“That forward sort of thinking about, ‘Oh my goodness, I may be at risk, my family may be at risk, I may see co-workers getting ill,’ is already, itself, raising peoples’ levels of anxiety,” she said.

Psychiatrist Sophia Vinogradov
Psychiatrist Sophia Vinogradov.
Courtesy of Sophia Vinogradov

For the last few weeks, Vinogradov has been working on something completely different from her usual research on schizophrenia. She and her team have set up a program to make sure the mental health of health care workers is being taken care of. 

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All over the country, programs have been springing up to make sure health care workers are getting the mental health they need. 

The Washington University medical school recently opened a hotline, called “Coping with Covid.” It’s a number that staff — from management to janitors — can call to talk to a therapist.

Jessi Gold, psychiatry professor at Washington University’s medical school
Jessi Gold, a psychiatry professor at Washington University’s medical school.
Courtesy of Jessi Gold

The effort is an obvious way for mental health professionals to pitch in during the pandemic, said Jessi Gold, a psychiatry professor who helped launch the hotline.

“As psychiatrists, we’re very used to dealing with the emotional outcomes. And I would say that’s where we feel most comfortable,” she said.

The program at the University of Minnesota, called the Minnesota Resilience Action Plan, starts with peer support. The concept is simple: People are matched with somebody in their department. The arrangement gives them a structure for checking in on each other, said Vinogradov.

“[It] allows peers to connect with one another and really create this incredible network of support among themselves on the units,” she said.

They’re also connected to someone from the behavioral health department, who coordinates other ways to support their mental health, whether through group discussions or something else. If a person needs more than that, department staff also offer confidential, one-on-one help. 

Like everything else these days, it’s all getting figured out on the fly.

“This is really uncharted terrain,” said Vinogradov. “We’ve not done anything like this before. No one has done anything like this before.”

The program is just getting started at the university, but the concept has already proven itself to Tjorvi Perry, an anesthesiologist. He works in the operating room and the intensive care unit and was assigned a buddy in his department. His anesthesiology colleagues have long understood the need for this kind of support, said Perry. 

“We see horrendous suffering and agony in our patients and our colleagues. And those things are hard to describe to people who haven’t been in that situation,” he said.

Getting health care workers to talk about their feelings — and to accept help processing them — can be hard, since they’re trained to be the helpers. The hope is that this program will help inoculate people against the stress of their jobs to help them avoid burnout, which can lead to frustration and even drive people to quit.  

That’s why the U of M plans to continue the program even after the COVID-19 crisis passes. 

Are you a health care or other worker dealing with the stress of treating COVID-19 patients? We want to hear from you: or on Twitter at @alisa_roth.

This story is part of Call to Mind, MPR’s initiative to foster new conversations about mental health.