By: Jamie Salsberg, LCSW, CAP, EMDR; Transformations Clinical Director
On September 11, 2001, I was living in New York City and working in the healthcare industry. I can remember watching the towers fall and immediately having the sense of my need to do something. I was formally trained as an EMT and my boss and I who did lab work in a hospital downtown at the time got geared up and headed down to ground zero as soon as we could. By the time we got there, all that was left was one large piece of scaffolding, standing up, the only remains of what I had known throughout my childhood of a grand symbol of New York City. The scene quickly turned into one of first responders helping first responders, as there were no survivors from the fall, but plenty of heroes who had been breathing in dust and smoke in their rush to help. I think a lot about what I saw in that scene, the falling ashes, gray sky in the middle of the day, all of the other first responders there; and I think a lot about that whenever I hear people talking about the frontline workers of this global pandemic.
As a clinician, one thing I have learned very clearly over the years for those who dedicate their lives to helping others is that self-care is typically the first thing to be ignored. There is a false belief that comes with the territory that it is somehow selfish to address your own needs that comes from a lack of understanding that selfishness and self-care are mutually exclusive. If I am selfish, I am not thinking about others, while self-care is the understanding that in order to be of service to others, I need to ensure that my own needs are being met, that I am healthy and stable.
And yet, for those who work, particularly in the healthcare system, no matter what the crisis, that thought is the same. The idea of taking care of yourself is not an option when your priority is making sure that everyone else around you is okay. I learned this all too well a long time ago when, as someone who worked in the healthcare system, I found myself headed to treatment for anxiety, depression, and substance abuse. On the one hand, I felt like a failure for taking a step back from my career and education, but on the other hand, when things got bad enough and I had no choice but to get help, there was a sense of relief that I was forced to take time for self-care.
It’s been almost 13 years since the day I left New York City and came to Florida to get treatment, and I never left. Instead, I got the help I needed, got better, and got more schooling so I could help others struggling like I was. Today, I work as the Clinical Director of Transformations Treatment Center where we specialize in treating first responders who spend their lives in the service of others. I still work in healthcare, but now, I do what I can to help as many people who spend their lives in service of others as possible. Yet now I find myself in the epicenter of a global pandemic, and a global trauma where it is easy to forget about self-care.
In the wake of this global trauma, and in the wake of the social unrest that surrounds us, there are countless healthcare workers, police, firefighters, and veterans who have or continue to risk their lives, and as such, are not always willing to get the help they need if and when they need it. The guilt that experienced by most front line worker of taking time to care for themselves and step away from their purpose is compounded by the knowledge of getting any kind of support when all over the country, there are staffing shortages of nurses, doctors, and first responders who are needed to help treat those dealing with COVID.
I received a chilling reminder of this recently as I am just recovering from COVID myself, and I feel grateful and blessed that I had what are considered to be mild symptoms, but I also know that I have never been that sick for that long in my life. During this time, my sense of responsibility to continue working, taking care of my children and helping others was never in the background. Particularly when experiencing something significant in our communities (whether local or global) there is a sense that I cannot afford to deal with any of the emotions or anxiety surrounding it, because the priority is to help everyone else who is going through it. As I began to recover, I was told that I would need to wait to donate convalescent plasma as I was still struggling with some headaches in the aftermath of the illness; it occurred to me that allowing myself to heal in order to better serve others is not something I alone struggle with.
We are in the middle of a global trauma, and sometimes those of us who are on the front lines, feel a sense of guilt and responsibility that makes us think we are wrong if we take the time to get help, when we need it. I remind myself constantly that I am one of the lucky ones, and there are many others who are not. At the same time, I recognize that as deadly as this virus is, for many people depression, suicide, substance abuse, self-medication, anxiety, and trauma can be just as deadly. While this may not seem like the time to get treatment for mental health, it is actually a vital time to do so. This virus is here to stay and the alternative is that we will not have the sustained and long term help that we need to continue to help those in need. It is easy to forget about the impact of PTSD and mental health at a time when we are dealing with a global biological crisis, however, the longevity and consistency of our health care system, requires that we also support the mental stability and emotional health of those individuals who can treat the rest of us.
If I could send a message to healthcare and front line workers out there, it would be that if you are spending your days risking your life to help others, it is essential that you understand that is not only okay but also necessary that you get the support that you need. The people in our communities may need us, but they need us healthy. If we do not allow other people to support us, we will be ultimately unable to be in service to those who need us the most. Healthcare professionals are not immune to the trauma and the emotions that go along with everything we are doing and seeing on a daily basis, and we deserve the same level of help and support that we give to the community around us.
If you, a colleague, or loved one are struggling with substance abuse and/or mental health issues, please reach out!