By Annie Prafcke
Fargo, ND – In partnership with Lutheran Social Services of North Dakota (LSSND) and the state of North Dakota, Project Renew is offering free, anonymous counseling to those affected by the COVID-19 pandemic.
Project Renew’s trained counselors are available by phone to talk about physical, emotional, and economic hardship brought on by the pandemic. They offer individual crisis counseling, hold virtual group support sessions, and connect clients to additional resources.
It is no secret that coronavirus has caused widespread strain on mental health. A recent Gallup poll indicates that Americans’ mental health may be at its worst in at least 20 years. Gallup surveys Americans’ mental health in its annual November Health and Healthcare survey. Every year since 2001, when the survey was first administered, the percentage of respondents who rated their mental health as “excellent” or “good” ranged from 81% to 89%. This year, only 76% rated their mental health at these levels.
While all of us have been affected in some way by the pandemic, Project Renew may be helpful for those feeling overwhelmed. Terri Burns, Project Renew Team Lead, says this program is unique because of its personalized services. Clients can arrange for ongoing appointments with a crisis counselor or reach out less frequently. Services are also anonymous. Clients are only asked to provide their first name, phone number, and the county in which they live.
Burns says of Project Renew, “It’s a little more individualized and a little more personal. In a time when we’re all feeling so disconnected from each other, having an actual connection is a wonderful thing.”
Seeking assistance can be difficult, especially for North Dakotans who pride themselves on self-sufficiency. Burns says she gets calls weekly from people wanting to volunteer, but these same people are often reluctant to receive services themselves.
She says, “What we’ve found is that North Dakotans really want to help other people and they don’t necessarily want to accept help themselves.”
Burns says group sessions are a good option for individuals who want to both give and receive support. Project Renew holds group sessions for new and expectant parents, educators, people who are grieving, and those who are high-risk for contracting COVID-19.
Counselors at Project Renew may be reached Monday through Friday between the hours of 8 a.m. and 5 p.m. at 701-223-1510. Additional information can be found on their website https://www.lssnd.org/projectrenew.
Project Renew’s services are available for anyone in North Dakota, regardless of age or occupation. However, healthcare workers are one group Project Renew especially hopes to reach. They are currently partnering with Reach for Resilience, a help line for medical professionals started by Sanford Health and the North Dakota Department of Human Services’ Behavioral Health Division.
Healthcare workers across the country are under exceptional stress. In an August survey conducted by the Physicians Foundation, over half (58%) of American physicians reported feelings of burnout. In 2018, that number was only 40%.
Yet, according to the survey, only 13% of medical professionals sought medical attention for mental health problems related to the pandemic.
Dr. Clifford Mauriello is a pediatric physician who works in Fargo and West Fargo. He specializes in infectious diseases. Dr. Mauriello says for the past few months, it has been challenging to protect staff health, while ensuring the children who see him receive necessary care. These kids often have unusual infectious diseases and may present symptoms similar to those for coronavirus.
He says, “Every time we see a patient, we’re worried they might have COVID, particularly if they have fever or cough . . . which is hard for people like me because my job is typically to see and care for kids with either unexplained fevers or prolonged fevers . . .”
Another constant concern for Dr. Mauriello is that there will not be enough patient beds. At the hospital he works for, when all beds on the adult floors are occupied, pediatric beds are used for adult patients. Since beds in both areas are now used for COVID-19 patients, space is limited.
As of December 9th at noon, there were only 5 staffed intensive care unit (ICU) beds and 8 inpatient beds available in Fargo. In the entire state, only 20 total ICU beds were available.
Dr. Mauriello says anxiety is often inescapable, even after leaving the hospital. “COVID fatigue is a big deal for me because I spend most of my free time worrying about COVID and what’s new,” he admits.
He adds that four weeks ago, many physicians were so concerned about the lack of available patient beds that they took political action. Dr. Mauriello, along with members of the local chapter of the American Academy of Pediatrics, wrote letters to Governor Burgum advocating for a mask mandate.
While important, he says writing letters, virtually attending town hall meetings, and being barraged with criticism from people against the mandate was exhausting. He did all of this while also working late at the hospital, sometimes until 8 or 9 p.m.
“We think that those efforts paid off . . . but it was a very stressful time,” he says. “Particularly four weeks ago was not a very pleasant time to be a doctor or a pediatrician in North Dakota.”
Dr. Mauriello says the hospital he works for provides mental health resources. He has utilized its physician wellness programs. However, he says in-person events with colleagues, such as hospital lectures and monthly journal discussions, were essential coping activities for him pre-pandemic. These events have been temporarily cancelled.
Public awareness of healthcare professionals’ mental health has increased, according to Dr. Mauriello. He hopes resources will continue to be provided to those in the healthcare industry.
He says, “One of the things that the pandemic has exposed is a need for more mental health support for providers and I’m really hopeful that after the pandemic ends, the programs that have been enacted will stay in place.”
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