WE ARE LIVING in the age of crisis.
An opioid epidemic. A global pandemic. Systemic racism. Each event will forever spark meaning and historical remembrance in our national conscience. Taken together, the first half of 2020 has been marked by the collision of three separate crises. No one can claim to be untouched by the pain we have witnessed over the past six months that has taken a lasting emotional toll on our psyche.
We have all the makings of an imminent mental health crisis.
In Massachusetts, research shows one out of four individuals have experienced a mental health illness and/or substance use disorder. And that was before coronavirus.
In the field of behavioral health we treat the invisible scars of trauma. As an organization treating mental health and substance use disorders, Volunteers of America of Massachusetts understands that mitigating risk has taken on new meaning. Since the onset of coronavirus, our highest priority was ensuring the safety of our clients and staff while simultaneously addressing how COVID-19 fears could spike deadly opioid relapses.
Our frontline workers have continuously staffed 24/7 residential treatment programs during these unprecedented times, when social isolation – an enemy of traditional addiction recovery – was mandated. Doing whatever it takes to keep vulnerable clients safe, frontline workers modified treatment plans to include special attention to the small things to help clients feeling fear, anger, and paranoia. From games to song to dance, to whatever it took, staff helped clients focus on their goals when that was needed and provide distractions when that was necessary.
Then, a video lasting 8:46 minutes transformed a movement into a national call to action. The names Ahmaud, Breonna, and George Floyd became part of our dialogue, victims at the center of injustice and deep-rooted social inequity. Protesters’ demands for social change inspire us – along with worries for their safety. A potential second wave of COVID-19 is expected to return this year. These tensions feed trauma.
Clients in early recovery walk a continuous tightrope, balancing hope, anxiety, and self-discovery. The heightened level of anxiety and stress permeates from client to client. The greatest staff intervention is compassion. It is exhausting – and inspiring work. Without this work, many of these clients face the potential of having to heal in the criminal justice system which is not equipped to manage this crisis.
We need to remember that the staff – our unsung heroes – also deserve compassion and need our support. One frontline worker remarked that she felt like an “essential invisible worker.” Whereas frontline health care workers during these past few months have been deservedly embraced as heroes, our staff’s frontlines are not intensive care units but residential programs. Our unsung heroes toil in obscurity while saving lives daily.
The coming storm of substance use disorders and mental health illness only means greater demands on dedicated staff who will become the next client’s case manager, recovery specialist, and counselor. That next client may be your brother, your mother, or you.
The past six months have served as a wake-up call that our behavioral health workers have been overstretched and underpaid. Supporting the mental wellbeing and resilience of frontline behavioral health care workers while they care for others is our moral imperative. We must begin by ensuring our practices and policies actively promote diversity, equity, and inclusion. We must also use our own treatment regimens as a sort of mental health ju-jitsu by turning around a trauma informed care of practice onto our frontline workers and ensure we are careful to consider how they experience safety, empowerment, and collaboration as part of the workplace.
We began this year in the continued throes of an opioid epidemic worsened by a global pandemic that reached our shores. We have been since shaken as a nation by the depths of overdue justice. More than ever, it seems, history is at our doorstep. This is a fight we must not turn away from. Our tools are love, compassion, and open hearts.
Through it all, our workers dedicate themselves to support our most vulnerable, often at an enormous emotional and psychological cost. We know these frontline workers are essential. We must come together to ensure through policies, resources, and practices they do not feel invisible.
Charles Gagnon is president and CEO of Volunteers of America of Massachusetts.