Heeding An Occupational Hazard Amid Disasters: Helping Others Before and Instead of Ourselves : My Blog
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Heeding An Occupational Hazard Amid Disasters: Helping Others Before and Instead of Ourselves

by Ellen Fink-Samnick MSW, ACSW, LCSW, CCM, CRP on 09/14/18

For the last two decades I’ve focused on an occupational hazard of our health and behavioral health workforce, to care for others more than and instead of ourselves. I’ve written many articles and blogs about the impact of the vicarious trauma experienced by practitioners and the importance of professional resilience to self-protect. This occupational hazard becomes a vital theme during a week that included both the anniversary of 9/11 and onslaught of Hurricane Florence. While countless disrupters confront our workforce daily, national and natural disasters evoke unique challenges. 


Why the Heightened Concern?

Health and human service professionals are natural helpers to our core; the initial impulse to jump smack into the thick of whatever crisis is occuring. As the daughter of a physician, I grew accustomed to the burst of energy that stemmed from watching my father’s excitement about a disaster or client emergency; how strange to consider this now. The distinctive energy of hospitals compelled my own career path, with my first professional role covering the intensive care unit and emergency department. The thought of collaborating with other disciplines through these life and death situations did, and continues to invigorate me. However, it was not until after two decades in the field, and post-9/11 that I realized the true impact of this daily walk into catastrophe on my own resilience; one that left me worn, torn, and utterly exhausted.


The more dialogues I have about heeding this occupational hazard with my interprofessional colleagues, the more I ponder why it is our reality. Frankly, I believe all health and human service professionals are wired to prioritize the needs of others, which puts us on a cautionary path. We enter our professional education thinking we’re immune from any stressors of crisis response. Perhaps we identify with being ‘crisis junkies’, and see ourselves as ‘belonging in the field’. With these mindsets in tow, students and new practitioners are at particular risk. While disasters are a clear opportunity to demonstrate skill, there is a flipside. Those persons just starting out are more vulnerable and can easily find themselves jumping headfirst into situations, without any thought of the manifesting emotions that will follow. They are unprepared for the profound levels of helplessness, sleeplessness, and array of behavioral health symptoms they will experience. They struggle to cope with the enormity of their response. What starts as appropriate limits for all human beings, become incorrectly understood as professional shortcomings. The new practitioner internalizes not being tough enough, resilient enough, or experienced enough to manage the intense nature of emergency work; an inaccurate perception at best. 

Despite popular belief, no health or behavioral health degree or licensure automatically grants superhero powers. We all possess limits. Even the most senior and experienced professional is not immune from feeling the impact of attending to the most intense needs of others. This dynamic also extends to our personal lives where we become the most likely candidates during disasters to be tapped for care and guidance by family and friends. There we are, with little reserve from our ‘day jobs’, extending our hours to address the emergent needs of those near and dear to us. We must be accountable to achieve some level of balance between occupational stressors and life challenges. Otherwise, sustainability in the workplace will forever be grossly compromised. 

Emergency Preparedness Lessons for Health and Behavioral Health Professionals

What follows are key lessons for our health and behavioral health professionals to self-protect amid disasters.

Lesson #1 Don’t let ‘Process and Roll’ be your norm: Health care professionals deal with the priority of the moment, then quickly move onto the next thing; the workload often doesn't allow for a break. In the fast-paced care environment this becomes especially true. Any emotional response becomes internalized, where it is left to fester if untreated. However, amid the priorities that come with emergency situations, we must be mindful to take breaks that allow us to recharge and renew. Even grabbing a few minutes to stop, breathe, and refocus eases that rising tension, and can expand both energies and efforts.


Lesson #2 Seek support, PRN: We all have limits to what we can provide, whether direct treatment and/or support. It is essential for health professionals to reach out for behavioral health intervention as needed.  SAMHSA’s new Efforts for Disaster Preparedness, Response, and Recovery site provides behavioral health resources to help first responders, professionals, and their communities prepare, respond, and recover from disasters.


Lesson #3 Awareness of our limits is a strength and not a weakness: This must be the mantra of professional practice for the industry. Our resilience is tested daily courtesy of evolving regulations, emerging populations, and other disrupters. Awareness of how our actions impact our practice is essential. Are you so fried to a crisp you run the risk of impacting patient safety? Are you going through the motions instead of rendering care that is unique, intentional, and patient-centered? Are you even aware of how at risk you are? Recognizing your limits means you are human and promotes better outcomes.


Lesson #4 Set limits on volunteering: While we may not live in the region directly impacted by a disaster, health and human service professionals feel the pain of those impacted on a deeply personal level. As a result, we often volunteer our efforts. Before rushing in to do so, take time to consider what is required. Don’t prioritize passion over physical stamina and sound emotional health. There are clear requirements for those who choose to step up, and lots to keep in mind per the blog, Volunteering to Help After Major Disasters. Do your homework! There may be other ways to be involved besides dropping into the middle of a disaster-zone, like supporting a donation drive. You can always check the website, National Voluntary Organizations Active in Disaster for a current listing of initiatives.


Lesson #5 The health and behavioral health workforce is the most vital resource to all who mandate care: Without our education, expertise, and acumen, no client care can be rendered.In times of disasters and emergency preparedness, this statement is even more accurate. I’m reminded of a quote from my blog on Suicide of Health Care Professionals; ‘Nobody has an endless reserve to help. That is far too great a burden to bear, particularly when dealing continuously with life, death, and the reality of the human circumstance’.  


Being mindful of the need to self-protect at any point, especially amid disasters is the greatest gift we can provide to all who rely on our keen focus; clients, consumers, colleagues, as well as ourselves.


#mustdobetter #selfprotect #preparedness


Until next time...Stay Resilient!


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