Coronavirus exhaustion – upholding the mental health of the care sector.

 

We are on the penultimate day of Mental Health Awareness Week. It has been a week when there has been a great deal of focus on the mental health and wellbeing of all our citizens as we live through these strange Covid days. Lockdown has added to and created considerable mental health distress and ill-health for tens of thousands. For many help has come from support they have found online or on the other end of the phone. For many others help simply has not come and at best will be delayed. How we look after ourselves mentally as individuals and as a nation matters now more than ever before.

In my thoughts today, however, I want to focus on some of the conversations which I have been having this week with folks in the care sector. These have been conversations which have shown me the real fragility which exists out there in terms of the mental wellbeing of our care sector. They are conversations which have changed quite considerably in tone and concern.

I suppose the first thing to say is that I am detecting a real change in the spirit and the morale of people delivering care in our care homes and in the community. I am detecting a depth of emotional exhaustion which I have never seen before.

It is probably a truism to say that whenever we are faced with a challenge in life the adrenaline of initial encounter, the support of those around us, the sense of collective endeavour can serve to energise and renew us. I think that was what many people felt in the early days of the Covid nightmare. Undeniably some of this collective camaraderie was on the back of a failure on the part of the rest of society to value the role of carers at the start of the pandemic. There was the constant focus in media and politics upon the NHS and its workforce. I am not – lest I be accused of it – denying the importance of our NHS colleagues at any time far less in recent weeks – but undeniably whether it was by being barred from special shopping times or refused offers from companies for ‘NHS only’ employees – social care staff felt ignored and put aside in the early days of the pandemic.

That changed and the ‘Clap for Carers’ movement – a response which may come to an end this coming Thursday – helped to underpin the central role and critical contribution of social care and other key workers to the rest of society. In the midst of battling this virus there was a growing sense of us all being ‘In It Together.’ Political point-scoring was put aside, and we entered a no-man’s land of consensual support, collective solidarity and focussed attention on beating the virus not least in the care home sector where it was beginning to have a dreadful impact.

But over time I have detected a change in the mood. The uneasy political peace gave way to the articulation of blame and the apportioning of responsibility for action or inaction. Personalities began to dominate rather than community consensus. The media began to focus negatively and critically on the care home sector and the inevitable finger-pointing started. Workers were literally door-stepped and followed home by a media sensing a story and with little concern for the aching pain and loss frontline workers and families were living through. But despite all this there remained an astonishingly sacrificial professional commitment on the part of the care workforce focussed on saving lives, being present, consoling and comforting.

But there is no doubt 9 weeks into lockdown that people are exhausted.

There is a type of tiredness which is so intense that it reaches deep inside the marrow of our bones. It is an exhaustion which is more than physical, it encompasses our spirit and our very being, it removes the energy which keeps us going even when we are tried beyond imagining. It is this emotional and total fatigue which is happening to care workers, managers and providers across Scotland.

I have never before had to hold so many conversations with individuals who have been on the edge of emotion, who are simply drained of energy and very tired at the constant barbed criticism which they feel is being directed at them from all quarters.

There is a coronavirus burnout happening before our eyes across Scotland. It is an exhaustion which is emotional, mental, and physical and it has been fed by excessive and prolonged stress. The stress of keeping going, saving lives, granting compassion and simply being present. And all the time there is a ticking clock of critique in the background. And accompanying this there is an emerging individual guilt – however misplaced – of ‘Could I have done better? Did we do everything we could have?’

 We need to be alive to the reality of a burnout care sector, of workers, managers and others feeling they have lost purpose. This does not just necessitate a response at an individual level it requires a real ‘putting our arms’ around care homes and home care. It is imperative that the potential of support for social care is achieved and maximised, that there is a mutual appreciation of the professionalism of the care sector by health colleagues and vice-versa.

It is well known that although we may expend all our energies getting to the summit of a challenge it is in the process of descending from the peak that most harm and injury is caused. The care sector in Scotland has exhausted every energy in fighting this virus and is still doing so – unlike the rush to lockdown seen elsewhere and the silence of unclapped hands  – the battle is still going on; lives are still being saved and cared for.

The last few weeks have been a collective effort and it is imperative that the next few weeks are ones where health and social care, where worker and manager, where politician and commentator, continue to uphold the care sector as we work collectively to meet the challenge of this virus.

There is a burnt-out exhausted care sector in our midst, but it is also one which is strong. It is strong in its talent, its creativity, its compassion and professionalism. It will grow stronger still if it is really supported, truly valued and deeply cherished.

As we end Mental Health Awareness week, I hope we can all collectively continue to remember and focus on the amazing care in our midst. So, every Tuesday at 7pm I will try to light a candle and spend a minute to remember those who have died in our care homes, in our hospitals and communities; to remember those who care beyond calculation, those who go out from comfort to give compassion; those who work tirelessly even when exhausted and burnt out. I will remember until that day when we hear of no deaths from Covid19. May that day come soon.

Please join me in lighting a #candleforcare.

 

Donald Macaskill