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    A helping hand for mental health

    Mental health was always going to be a significant problem during the COVID-19 pandemic, with fear, illness, and isolation proving a potent cocktail.  Nowhere is this being experienced more acutely than amongst healthcare professionals on the front line of the battle.  For many, it’s been months of intense psychological pressure and exhaustion as they help others, whilst fearing for their health and that of their families.  For many, that’s being managed against a backdrop of isolation as a result of lockdowns and restrictions.

    Psychiatry registrar Dr Tahnee Bridson has long been aware of the impact of working in the medical profession on mental health, with many doctors suffering high levels of stress, anxiety, and depression long before anyone had ever heard of COVID-19.

    “We work in very stressful environments and the typical kind of personalities that we tend to have are quite perfectionist, and very driven and very hard on ourselves and this can lead to burnout,” Dr Bridson said.

    Last year Dr Bridson worked with mental health advocates, including former Australian of the Year Professor Pat McGorry, to organise a mental health week in Cairns. The aim, to raise awareness of mental issues in the wider community and to remind her medical colleagues of the need to look after their mental health and wellbeing.

    “We wanted everyone to think about their mental health and to know that it is okay to not be okay.  We wanted people to feel they could put up their hand and say ‘I’m struggling and I need help’.  People need to know that it is okay to be human, that no one has to be superhuman, and always putting on a brave face when things get tough.

    “We also felt it was really important for people to know where they could turn for help,” Dr Bridson said.

    The success of the project had organisers looking at ways to expand in 2020, when the world was plunged into the unknown of COVID-19.

    Dr Bridson said such a major, ongoing stressor was always going to take a heavy toll on the mental health of doctors and other healthcare professionals working on the front lines of the pandemic.

    To her, it seemed logical that they look at how their work from the previous year could form the basis of a support network for all health care professionals in need.  Thus the Hand-n-Hand network was born.

    “It’s not a clinical treatment service, we are not going to act as their doctor or treating nurse, psychologist, or dietician.  It is a pre-clinical service for people looking for peer-to-peer support to help through this time.  It’s not just for doctors but all healthcare workers.”

    “The whole idea for the name was just something I came up with on Sunday afternoon while trying to think of something catchy to call us.  It stands for ‘Helping Australian and New Zealand Nurses and Doctors’.

    I was kind of worried that it might sound a bit lame, but it’s caught on and everyone likes it.”

    Organisers started on social media, setting up on Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram, calling for those who wanted support and those keen to act as mentors or supporters to sign up.  Within a day more than 400 healthcare professionals had asked to join.

    That number quickly quadrupled to 1600.

    Six months on and Hand-n-Hand is now a national peer support network, working in partnership with the Black Dog Institute through The Essential Network for Health Professionals (TEN). The psychiatrists, GPs, nurses and allied health professionals provide effective peer support and mentoring services.  The organisation also has the interest and support of several medical colleges, including the Royal Australian and New Zealand College of Psychiatrists and the Royal Australian and New Zealand College of Obstetricians and Gynecologists.

    Members have also presented webinars and conducted radio interviews about the importance of mental health.

    The service has reported a significant increase in healthcare professionals seeking help in Victoria due to the second wave of the COVID-19.  At the same time, it is also supporting people around the country and across the ditch in New Zealand.

    “There’s been a definite increase in the number of people asking for support.  It started more with medical doctors, but it’s now expanded further into allied health and nursing as its gained traction,” Dr Bridson said.

    She believes by making Hand-n-Hand an informal, peer-related service, health professionals are less scared to ask for help.

    “There shouldn’t be any stigma attached to mental health but people worry that there will be.  This just makes it a little easier for them to put up their hand and say ‘I think I need support’.  The other really nice thing is we’ve had support within hospitals with department heads and bosses getting behind us.  They’ve been quite keen, which is good.  If it trickles down from the top, junior doctors and healthcare workers will be more likely to take it up.”

    Feedback has been overwhelmingly positive from both those seeking support as well as those offering it.  Dr Bridson said the next step is to roll the program out to medical students, linking up with the Australian Medical Student’s Association.

    It’s hoped a pilot program will run for medical students at James Cook University in Townsville next year led by Professor Brett McDermott, one of the founding members of Hand-n-Hand.

    In the long run, Dr Bridson hopes the work of organisations such as Hand-n-Hand will help instigate change across the whole profession, from student level to the top.

    “Mental health and wellbeing need to be taken seriously in the workplace, especially in healthcare.  While COVID has brought with it so many challenges, it has also allowed us to really raise these issues and hopefully get more ongoing long-term support for our colleagues.”

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