Mental health of front-line workers impacted by cases and workload |

Mental health of front-line workers impacted by cases and workload

Summit County’s high demand for behavioral health care amid the pandemic is playing a big part

Jennifer McAtamney, executive director of Building Hope Summit County, discusses mental health care Sept. 17, 2019. Building Hope is a nonprofit organization that works to promote better mental health.
Liz Copan/Summit Daily News archives

Summit County already struggled with mental health issues before the pandemic, but the need for care has since skyrocketed. Trying to balance the increasing workload are front-line workers like health care professionals, therapists, psychiatrists and first responders.

Take Building Hope Summit County, for example. The nonprofit’s scholarship program gives vouchers for 12 therapy sessions to residents experiencing financial hardship. Since 2019, the organization’s program has grown over 50%, and last year alone, it gave out 611 scholarships. As of June this year, the organization had given out 244 scholarships.

The level of need the organization is fulfilling is impressive, but what kind of toll does this line of work take on those delivering these much-needed services?

Perhaps one of the most difficult components of the job falls on the shoulders of Summit County Coroner Regan Wood and her department. Wood said more often than not, her small team has a personal connection to their work.

“As far as suicide and the impact on our office, it’s really tough, especially with locals,” Wood said. “I’ve been (in the community) 28 years and seem to have a connection to probably 60% to 70% of our cases in one way or another, just from being in the community for that long.”

Wood said she suffered from post-traumatic stress disorder for 16 years and that it’s difficult to work with surviving family and friends who sometimes have feelings of guilt. As a result, department members keep a close eye on one another to ensure everyone is staying healthy and getting respite from their day jobs.

“Pretty much all of our staff, we try to keep a close tab on everyone’s mental health state, and we’re all very active people,” Wood said. “We all try to exercise as much as possible, get our breaks when we can and take care of ourselves. Self-care in this world is huge. If you don’t do it, you’re not going to make it as a death investigator. Even with self-care, after a while, I believe the cumulative effects of dealing with death and trauma catch up with you.”

Wood said she and her “survivor’s team” work closely with the family and friends of each case to take care of any needed logistics. Mostly, the team is there to offer support and comfort in the aftermath of notifying loved ones that someone has died.

Building Hope Executive Director Jennifer McAtamney said police officers, veterans and firefighters are impacted, too.

“If you look at things like vets and police officers, I would say trauma is a big driver of those people having big mental health challenges,” McAtamney said. “Traumatic events can really shake your mental health up, and emotional trauma is sort of like physical trauma on the brain, where it can actually impair that function when a terrible thing happens to someone.”

McAtamney noted that currently, many front-line workers are feeling burdened as the delta variant becomes more prominent in the community and beyond.

“With the reemergence of the delta variant and how things feel like they are going backwards a little bit, it is retraumatizing people. … We all thought we were going to get to a point where we can breathe and unwind a little bit, and now it feels like we’re going backward.”

While this line of work is difficult, Wood noted that she’s grateful for Building Hope, which has a plethora of services and programs for community members who are struggling.

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