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Accessing mental health supports and focusing on self-care can help build the resilience needed to see us through to the end of the pandemic. "When there is uncertainty about when exactly something will end, this can really challenge our ability to cope with it," says UHN clinical investigator Dr. Suze Berkhout. (Photo: iStock)

We're living through a hard time. There's no other way to put it. No matter where you look – work, home, society, the economy and beyond – we're all experiencing variations of hardship wrought by the COVID-19 pandemic.

We're tired, anxious and overwhelmed.

Healthcare workers in particular have not only had a front row seat to the devastation of this disease, but have also shouldered the bulk of its burden – for what will soon be a year.

Though the arrival of the COVID-19 vaccine brought with it the hope of a return to some kind of normal, there are still many challenges to work through before we get there.

"We've heard the comparison many, many times that the pandemic is not a sprint, it's a marathon," says Dr. Suze Berkhout a clinical investigator with UHN's Centre for Mental Health.

"But we're not sure what mile we're at in this marathon, and it has started to feel more like an Ironman.

"When there is uncertainty about when exactly something will end, this can really challenge our ability to cope with it," she adds.

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The pandemic's elusive end is but one of the many challenges healthcare workers are grappling with. There's also fatigue, the toll of caring for COVID positive patients, anxiety of getting the virus or bringing it home to their families, keeping up with the speed of changing policies, helplessness, and anger from seeing some members of the public ignore public health guidance meant to curb the spread of COVID-19.

And, this is on top of its other disruptions: school closures and pivoting to online learning, caring for a loved one, and continued isolation from friends or family – the very people we rely on to get through tough times.

However, global research to date has shown that though the level of distress voiced by healthcare workers about the pandemic is high, there is a low uptake on the resources provided to help them cope.

Now, more than ever, tending to our mental health and personal wellness are crucial to support us as we traverse the miles of the pandemic we have left, whether they are few or many.

Today, Thursday, Jan. 28, is the annual Bell Let's Talk Day. Though mental health is important every day, this serves as an opportunity to speak up about how the pandemic is affecting us and cultivate support strategies. Whether we are accessing resources ourselves or helping someone who is struggling, as Bell's campaign emphasizes: "Every action counts."

For some, the idea of taking on yet another "thing" during an overwhelming time, might feel like we're being told to handle it ourselves or that we can "meditate away" a problem, but that's not the intent.

"There is so much out of our control that contributes to the challenges people are facing in the midst of the pandemic," explains Dr. Berkhout.

"So, how can we work with what's in our control? What are things we ourselves can do to try to feel better? It doesn't need to be any one thing, it can be a combination of them and really has to be what works for us personally."

Effective Stress Relievers

It's hard enough to practice healthy habits when we want to, much less during a very stressful time. But there are a few, easy things we can do to support ourselves when feeling overwhelmed:

A variety of self-management strategies and professional or peer support are available through UHN Cares, a collection of resources organized during the first wave of the pandemic and still available to help TeamUHN cope with the challenges of COVID-19.

"We are so pleased to provide these resources to staff and help them through what is probably the most challenging time of their careers," says Dr. Susan Abbey, UHN's Psychiatrist-in-Chief and Medical Director of UHN's Centre for Mental Health.

"As healthcare workers, it's in our nature to help everyone else before we even think of ourselves, but we can't forget about our own resilience which, when strong, allows us to better support others."

Since launching in April 2020, more than 2,100 staff have consulted the online self-directed resources vailable on UHN's COVID-19 Preparedness page, and over 70 have received group and individual support from the UHN Cares program.

Anonymous feedback speaks not only to its benefit but also overcoming any reservations staff might have had about accessing them and feeling solidarity with the providers:

"I always wanted to be there to help protect everybody else…and the realization that you need help to do that for yourself is sometimes hard," says one feedback survey.

"UHN Cares made that easy for me. I was able to take it onboard. I was able to internalize it, to build, and move on from there."

Another adds: "[reaching out] was so much easier because it bypassed the barrier of all the time waiting… And that I'm definitely very appreciative for, and I think that's one of the biggest benefits.

"Along with the fact that it's UHN employees helping UHN employees. So, that way we can get through everything together," says another.

As we work through this second wave of the pandemic, many of us will need more than the vaccine as our beacon of light to get through the darkness – and that is ok.

"We need to allow ourselves to acknowledge where we are now, where we have been and try to find meaning and purpose in the challenge ahead," says Dr. Berkhout. "Accessing these tools can help us refocus on why we are doing this role – how we are contributing to something bigger than ourselves – and hopefully foster that resilience that will see us through."

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