Pandemic offers opportunities to scale up interventions for the mental health of frontline workers: Experts

It is time to prioritize the mental and physical wellbeing of those who every day are facing the worst of the pandemic on the frontlines

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Image for representational purpose.
New Delhi: CorStone in collaboration with SNEHA organised a webinar on ‘Roadmap to Resilience: Prioritizing the mental health of frontline health workers’ on January 6, 2022. The webinar offered a perspective on how COVID-19 has highlighted the urgent need to address the resilience and mental wellbeing of Frontline Health Workers (FLHWs) and the opportunity to reorient the healthcare system via a resilience-based approach to better prepare FLHWs for future health crises.
Speakers of the webinar included Gracy Andrew, Vice President and Country Director, CorStone; Dr Nayreen Daruwala, Programme Director, Prevention of Violence against Women and Children, SNEHA, Mumbai; Dr Sunil Babu, Executive Director, Health and Nutrition & Chief of Party-BTSP, CARE-India; and Dr Aparna Joshi, Assistant Professor, Centre for Human Ecology, Tata Institute of Social Sciences.  The guest speaker included the front-line worker on behalf of CorStone namely Mamta Kumari, ASHA facilitator. The event was moderated by Shai Venkatraman, of Footprint Global Communications and formerly a senior journalist with NDTV.
Gracy Andrew from CorStone highlighted the need to scale up resilience skill building programmes to mitigate challenges faced by FLHWs.  For instance, from December 2020 to April 2021, CorStone in collaboration with CARE India (Bihar) developed and piloted a 6 session Resilience curriculum for Accredited Social Health Activists (ASHAs). To date, the training has been imparted to around 400 CARE block level trainers across 14 districts of Bihar, who in turn conduct sessions with ASHAs on self-management techniques.
“Clearly, we missed out on addressing the burnout and distress that our health workers were experiencing during the pandemic. Not only did they have to meet the demands of their job, but also the push back from the community and their respective families. FLHWs also lived with the constant fear of transmitting the virus to their families, as the job demanded direct engagement with infected populations,” said Gracy Andrew.
The CorStone-designed resilience modules thus focused on building skills such as smart listening, managing emotions, and recognizing strengths and weaknesses, as well as communication and goal setting skills to help ASHAs interact effectively with beneficiaries in the field.
Mamta Kumari, FLHW added, “My family was initially hesitant to send me out to the field during the pandemic which was stressful as we had to meet demands both within our own households as well as many additional professional responsibilities. The resilience and skill building training by CorStone really helped me to build the self-confidence I needed to reach out to communities and serve them to the best of my abilities.”
Dr Nayreen Daruwala SNEHA, Mumbai highlighted that the need to introduce workshops on understanding the experiences of FLHWs has become increasingly pivotal. Virtual training sessions and workshops allow workers to express themselves while clearing the apprehensions and fears they face in the field.
 “If we look at the current scenario, there are no investments made to build resilience and mental health support mechanisms for our field warriors. SNEHA hence introduced workshops and telephone counselling which has worked really well as a one-to-one channel with FLHWs to communicate and express their concerns. Indeed, technology in the last two years has offered significant opportunities for mental health support services, such as the channel of tele counselling,” said Dr Nayreen Daruwala.
Dr Aparna Joshi from the Tata Institute of Social Sciences, shared that throughout the pandemic there has been a sharp rise in calls on the special mental health helpline established for FLWHs. The common issue that surfaced, as expressed by the FLHWs, was the issue of psychosocial distress. Stressors were structural in nature as they received no help from the system. FLHWs were clearly not trained in its management and were in need of psychosocial services and material generation on self-care.
“To train workers on psychosocial distress we conducted workshops across the country to cater psychosocial services as we realized mental health is not a standalone issue. We simultaneously engaged in material generation in different vernacular to highlight the importance of self-care that was imparted during the workshops.”- said Dr Aparna Joshi.
The webinar overall reiterated the widespread need to have more open conversations around mental health. The pandemic has led to long working hours and increased workload, which in turn has hindered FLHWs from reaching out for help. Implementing prevention and control practices that eliminate, reduce, and manage the factors that contribute to FLHWs’ poor mental health are the need of the hour. It is time to prioritize the mental and physical wellbeing of those who every day are facing the worst of the pandemic on the frontlines.