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Penn State Health experts share insights on how to manage mental health during COVID-19

May is Mental Health Awareness Month, but the spotlight turned to mental health much earlier this spring as experts from the Department of Psychiatry and Behavioral Health at Penn State College of Medicine offered many resources to employees suddenly thrust into the middle of a global pandemic.

Dr. Erika Saunders, department chair, and colleagues anticipated the physical and emotional toll ahead and brainstormed on how to best support employees in withstanding the stress of adapting to new roles at work and dealing with unknowns surrounding COVID-19 exposure for themselves and their families.

“Our health care workers who are continuing to do their jobs in either the same way or different ways, but in a different environment, are experiencing something completely different than those who are sheltering at home – a higher amount of stress at work,” she said.

She and other department members did numerous media interviews on topics ranging from the importance of maintaining human connections while sheltering in place to helping children understand the virus. As a result, they became trusted voices in a community searching to make sense of rapidly changing circumstances.

Within the Penn State Health community, they also became trusted sources of support and compassion.

“When we are emotionally and physically exhausted, we’re not able to care for others the way that we should,” Saunders said. “It’s imperative for essential workers to recharge themselves by eating, sleeping and finding coping mechanisms. It’s also imperative for us as a health system to find ways to provide extra mental health support and stress reduction.”

Psychiatry and Behavioral Health faculty and staff partnered with the Department of Pastoral Care and the Office for Professional Mental Health, as well as experts across the medical center, to provide online wellness programs to support employees with consultations, crisis intervention and general mental health questions. An employee hotline at 717-531-0003, ext. 310508, connects callers to in-house supports, including a mental health specialist.

Resources have included facilitated weekly interactive Zoom sessions called “When Home Becomes the Workplace” that gave tips for successfully working from home, along with relaxation exercises classes and mindfulness practice sessions.

WeCare, twice-weekly group discussion sessions via Zoom for health care teams working with COVID unit patients, continues in joint partnership with the Doctors Kienle Center for Humanistic Medicine in the Department of Humanities. It provides a safe space to talk about challenges and support one another.

Throughout the pandemic, mental health providers have continued to see patients, mostly via telehealth appointments, and received much positive feedback.

“The virtual visit was a godsend,” said a parent of a child with autism who doesn’t travel well. “It’s 60 miles one way to the clinic and being spared that drive time was wonderful.”

Providers have also shared COVID-related mental health expertise with other mental health professionals through Project ECHO, a tele-education platform for physicians and health systems.

As the state moves to reopen, mental health professionals have a new challenge ahead – how to help people navigate the economic implications left by the pandemic.

“As mental health professionals and as a society, I think we need to prepare for how to best support our communities in these next weeks, months, years – because we know that these effects will be there,” Saunders said.

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