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As coronavirus fight progresses, a focus on first responders’ mental health

Jay Ruderman
Jay RudermanJoshua Blanchard/Getty Images for Media Access Awards

Like health care professionals everywhere, Dr. David Finn’s colleagues at Massachusetts General Hospital have always had to deal with a certain level of on-the-job stress: worrying about patients and their loved ones, questioning decisions, being in the presence of death.

But lately, with the novel coronavirus infecting more people who make their way to the hospital, those anxieties are amplified.

“Everybody who works in health care really goes into health care because they want to help other people,” said Finn, the hospital’s medical director. “And I think there is somewhat of a feeling of . . . wanting to help, but not necessarily being able to."

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The Boston-based Ruderman Family Foundation last week announced a $100,000 grant for mental health services to medical professionals at Massachusetts General Hospital. They also contributed $10,000 to the Boston Police Foundation, which will open more clinician hours for police officers who want to talk — confidentially — to a mental health professional.

“It’s not just about protecting your officers with PPE [personal protective equipment], you have to protect their mental health as well,” Boston Police Commissioner William G. Gross said. “. . . This isn’t the old days where you try to hide stuff.”

Gross emphasized that the Police Department’s program is confidential and what officers say in support sessions will not be relayed to their supervisors or anyone else, even if they were referred by another member of the department.

“Anybody, anybody seeking the help of the Peer Support Unit or personal counseling will not be ostracized, they will not be criticized, they will not be ridiculed,” Gross said. “If you’re mentally and physically fit and sound, you are better able to serve the people.”

The grant also affords Mass. General some freedom for what they do with the money and how to best address their employees’ needs.

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“You also have to think about how much time do these doctors and nurses and support staff have available to actually see a clinician and talk to someone,” said Hanna Shaul Bar Nissim, deputy director of the Ruderman Family Foundation. “There are many ways to provide for their well-being in an emergency time, including consulting and support but also sometimes more immediate needs, not necessarily mental health by direct conversation."

Finn said he’s seen colleagues worry that, despite using personal protective gear and taking necessary precautions, they’ll unwittingly bring the virus home to a vulnerable loved one. They worry about the toll long hours will take, and whether they’ll burn out. They worry about patients they saw before the outbreak and whether they’ll continue getting the care they need.

“Like a lot of professions where you’re trained to want to help others, there probably is less of an openness over time about asking for help," Finn said. "I think that’s getting better. I actually hope that one of the good things that can come out of this in the end is the recognition that people who are working in health care — not just physicians, but nurses, and even the front desk staff, everybody who is trying to help patients — they bear the brunt of a lot of the stress.”

Jay Ruderman, president of the Ruderman Family Foundation, said he wanted to address an unmet need. The foundation generally focuses on promoting the rights of people with disabilities, but has also worked with police departments in researching officer suicides.

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And as the pandemic continues to spread through Massachusetts, Ruderman said he has worried about people who are getting sick; about people who have disabilities and how they’ll be treated if they contract the virus; about police officers who cannot stay home; and about the health care professionals who have to work long hours and make difficult decisions when the number of sick people outgrows their available resources. And he’s been thinking about how he can best use his resources to help.

“I hope and pray that we have great leadership out there, but I also see the philanthropic and the activist community coming out and doing everything that they think they can do to fill holes and bridge gaps and help government when they’re fighting for resources,” Ruderman said. “Masks and personal protective gear and ventilators, if I had access to those things, I certainly would be donating them. But you see that even states and governments are having a hard time getting it.”

Ruderman said the grant would both provide some immediate help for people on the front line and spark conversations about mental health in professions that are under great stress.

“If we lose our doctors and nurses because they physically — they have a mental breakdown and they cannot cope, we’re in real trouble," Ruderman said. “. . . I think there’s still a tremendous amount of stigma around mental health, but it’s there, and it’s just as important as our physical health."

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Gross said supervisors and rank-and-file officers in the Police Department are instructed to look out for members of the force who may be experiencing more stress during the pandemic, and to let them know where they can find counseling.

“There’s a lot of concern over whether these officers will be victims of COVID-19, whether they could possibly pass it on to their co-workers, their family members,” Gross said. “But we still have a job to do.”


Gal Tziperman Lotan can be reached at gal.lotan@globe.com or at 617-929-2043.