August 14, 2020
Many behavioral health providers delivering care during the COVID-19 pandemic face a new challenge – experiencing the same fears as their clients while still providing necessary support. IU School of Social Work’s Patrick Sullivan and Carol Hostetter are working with the supervisors of these frontline workers to identify the best way to help them deal with the trauma of providing services during this time.
“With COVID-19, it’s a shared traumatic reality that no one is escaping from – your life is affected, and your children are affected,” said Sullivan, an IU Bloomington associate dean, master of social work program director, and IUPUI chancellor’s professor. “Everything happening to you as a professional is also happening with your clients. You are sharing that same space at the same time. If you have the same fears, how do you sort that out?”
The researchers have partnered with Centerstone, a not-for-profit health system that provides mental health and substance use disorder treatments, in Bloomington, Ind. They are conducting in-depth telephone interviews with Centerstone supervisors to capture the experiences of employees during the pandemic, which will then be transcribed and analyzed for themes that emerge.
As COVID-19 began to spread, behavioral health care providers had to change the way they were doing business, switching quickly from a face-to-face counseling model to telehealth, which they may have had little or no previous experience or training. At the same time, they were dealing with their own fears about their health and family, while still offering the support to people who needed it.
“I am concerned about the health and well-being of first responders in behavioral health care and their staff,” Sullivan said. “The mental health concerns that are going to arise or be exacerbated by this pandemic are huge. We cannot afford to lose talented clinicians in our field, so it is vital that we do whatever we can to support them.”
Secondary trauma, when people hear stories so impactful that it profoundly affects them, is often referred to as an occupational hazard. It affects a person’s assumptive system and how they view the world and humanity. If it happens to a professional, their ability to be effective and to remain compassionate and empathetic is somewhat compromised, Sullivan said. It’s vital to monitor this type of trauma during the pandemic, and supervision is an important way to help them cope.
Sullivan and his team are hoping to identify ways supervisors can be more supportive during this time, while also dealing with a variety of issues in terms of business operations.
“We want to find out whether supervision is still available for the frontline worker, whether there is still a place for them to come to say they’re anxious, concerned or worried about their clients and their lives or is supervision today more about the business components, such as how many clients you met,” Sullivan said. “Their whole world has been turned upside down by this. We’re dealing with all of this together, and the supervisors are the rocks in these people’s lives.
Sullivan said supervisors are being asked to share their employees’ experiences during the pandemic and what types of topics their staff brings to supervisory sessions. They are looking to identify what tactics have been helpful for people as they move forward.
“We want to learn from this study what it is like to provide these services during the pandemic, what lessons we can learn to help others negotiate future confusing times,” said Sullivan, who also plans to return to Centerstone in the future to provide a workshop and presentation of the findings.
This project, “Mental health practitioners and supervisors amidst the pandemic,” is one of 17 projects to receive funding as part of the OVCR COVID-19 Rapid Response Grant Program.