The mental health and wellbeing of health care workers were put under the spotlight during a recent event at Stellenbosch University's (SU) Faculty of Medicine and Health Sciences (FMHS).
The half-day workshop, jointly hosted by SU's Departments of Paediatrics and Child Health, Psychiatry and Clinical Psychology, was the first of its kind to be held in the seminar facilities at the brand new, state-of-the-art Biomedical Research Institute at the FMHS.
The workshop came about when Dr Deepthi Raju Abraham, who serves as Chair of Health and Wellness for the Department of Paediatrics and Child Health, became aware of mental health challenges faced by personnel in the department. In collaboration with colleagues from the Departments of Psychiatry and Clinical Psychology, the idea for the mental health and wellness workshop was conceived.
“We hope to spread awareness, support and nurture, and recommend that this venture be hosted and enjoyed by many other departments as well in an effort to pursue mental health and wellness among our faculty and hospital joint staff," says Abraham, a paediatric rheumatologist with the Department of Paediatrics and Child Health.
The workshop was presented by Dr Debra (Debbie) Alexander, a clinical psychologist and former Executive Head of the Department of Clinical Psychology. She currently holds the position of Extraordinary Senior Lecturer and is the programme coordinator of the MPhil in Mindfulness offered by the Department of Psychiatry. The concept of mindfulness was also a central theme of the workshop she presented.
“The intention of the workshop was to give participants an opportunity to 'press pause' in their busy lives and to focus the spotlight of attention on themselves," says Alexander. “The message I wanted to get across was that the first step in taking care of others, is self-care.
The workshop provided opportunities for introspection in relation to health, well-being and self-care in the context of our busy lives, pressures, stressors and competing demands. Participants were reminded of the many ways in which they could nurture and nourish themselves and were given an opportunity to explore a variety of formal and informal mindfulness practices.
According to Dr Kerry Louw, a senior lecturer with the Department of Psychiatry, mental health issues among health care workers are widespread and well documented. “Health care workers face overwhelming challenges in their work environments that put them at increased risk for mental health problems, including burnout, depression, anxiety, substance use disorder and suicide," says Louw.
“Rates of physician burnout have been shown to be twice that of other professionals and a pre-pandemic systematic review found prevalence rates of physician burnout as high as 80% in some studies. Of concern is that physicians also have one of the highest rates of suicide of any profession," she continues.
Furthermore, health professionals are less likely to seek and access help because of stigma, fear of repercussions, being trained to cope alone and a survival mentality. “There has always been an expectation in society that health care workers will put the needs of patients and society first and have the answer to complex problems, and in the time of Covid-19 there was an even stronger hero narrative in the media placing increased pressure on health care workers to cope and put the needs of others first," says Louw.
Caption: Dr Debbie Alexander (left) and participants at the wellness workshop (right).