CNA sitting on stairs with head in her hands.
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Healthcare organizations’ disaster preparedness plans must include “explicit plans for supporting mental health,” say the authors of a new piece in JAMA Psychiatry.

“These plans require investment in a mental health workforce that has capacity and flexibility to respond during disasters,” the authors wrote.

The “special communication,” published Wednesday, seeks to help guide implementation of the National Academy of Medicine’s National Plan for Health Workforce Well-Being, released in 2022, by sharing information about programs begun at the Columbia University Irving Medical Center and the University of California, San Francisco, using lessons learned from the pandemic. Neither university previously had integrated mental health or workforce well-being into disaster planning, leaving them unprepared for the impact and duration of the COVID-19 public health emergency, according to the JAMA Psychiatry article.

Structural changes are needed to promote worker well-being, the authors said, adding that paying attention to staff member needs “creates workplace environments that either mitigate or exacerbate the inherently stressful jobs involved in caring for ill patients.”

The COVID-19 pandemic brought increasing public awareness to caregivers’ mental health, they noted, but even before that, “anxiety, burnout, depression, stress and suicide were increasingly recognized as a growing crisis in the healthcare workforce.”

Compassionate leadership is needed in creating a positive culture, the authors said.

“We believe that leaders should be evaluated by their ability to prioritize well-being and mental health, in addition to productivity,” they wrote.

Most importantly, according to the authors, employers must take steps to destigmatize mental health support and treatment. 

“We recommend that institutions launch mental health destigmatization campaigns to encourage all staff to seek treatment when needed, connected with scalable low- resource interventions,” they wrote.

Financial resources at the local, regional and national levels are needed to implement the National Academy of Medicine’s recommendations to support healthcare workers, the authors said.

Planning for a future crisis must start now, they said.

One senior living provider is taking steps to safeguard employees’ mental health. Benchmark Senior Living, which operates continuing care retirement communities and skilled nursing facilities throughout the Northeast, has announced a partnership with Spring Health, a virtual mental health service, to provide personalized care, dedicated support, confidential therapy, medication management and family care to all of its employees and their dependents.

“Benchmark supports mental health parity or any measure that improves access to quality mental health services to individuals and families,” said Tom Grape, CEO of the Waltham, MA-based company. “The healthcare sector has witnessed the dramatic and painful impact the pandemic has had on our dedicated and compassionate caregivers. While COVID did not create this problem, it certainly illuminated a longstanding and growing concern. As a society, we must seize this moment and effect change for the long-term.”

“The quality of our mental health impacts many aspects of our lives, from our relationships with family and friends to our physical well-being. As such, supporting our workers and their families is the right thing,” said Grape. He added that his company is committed to building awareness of mental health, using company newsletters, videos, group discussions and other channels to create awareness.