Mental Health Workers Serve on Front Line of the Pandemic

Categories: Clinical Services, Feature

Since the start of the pandemic, we have heard so many stories of heroism from health care workers who are fighting the virus on the front lines. But most people may not be aware that there is another group of essential workers serving on the front lines: behavioral health providers.

While many mental health services have transitioned to virtual care, some patients struggle with symptoms so severe they simply cannot wait for the pandemic to end to receive in-person care. Luckily for them, Catholic Charities DC’s Assertive Community Treatment (ACT) team continues to treat these consumers in their communities.

The team of psychiatrists and psychiatric nurse practitioners currently serves nearly 150 clients with the eventual goal to serve 200. These clients, many of whom are homeless, suffer from conditions including schizophrenia, major depression, and substance abuse – oftentimes exacerbated by the pandemic.

“When working on the front lines, we put our health and safety at risk to continue to provide services to the consumers,” said Carshell De Gale, a clinical care coordinator with ACT. “But it is a selfless act because we are trying to help consumers manage their mental health and stay safe, providing medications, offering education while still attempting to provide the continuity of care since before the pandemic.”

De Gale, who has been a member of the ACT team for more than five years, ran three psychotherapy groups that dealt with issues like anger management and smoking, and he loved interacting with these consumers and seeing their smiles. But since March, he’s had to overcome new challenges to treating these patients such as technology gaps, lack of knowledge about the virus and safety protocols, and physical and social isolation. While he approaches his work determined to help these clients who rely on his support, it has affected him personally.

“I had to learn to manage being a full-time parent and teacher while working,” he said. “It is stressful and challenging when attempting to manage your children’s schoolwork and real-time activities while helping the consumers with their goals or through a crisis.”

Self-care is critical for members of the ACT team and they are encouraged to take days off to recharge. De Gale uses his weekends to relax, regroup and rejuvenate. For Huy Bui, another clinical care coordinator with ACT, meditation helps him reflect and gives him hope that we will overcome this crisis.

Originally from Vietnam, Bui has worked for Catholic Charities DC for 10 years and has served on the ACT team for one year. Like De Gale, he loved establishing face-to-face relationships with his clients.

“Our consumers believe we are a part of their family,” he said.

But the pandemic forced him to meet with some clients virtually, which he said makes it difficult to foster a sense of belonging. For patients he’s able to see in person, he’s had to learn how to maintain a high level of care while social distancing and wearing personal protective equipment.  Some of his consumers have had their symptoms worsen, while others are having trouble taking their medications regularly. Overall, the crisis has made our clients more mentally and physically vulnerable.

However, these new challenges have not affected Bui’s commitment to serve his clients with compassion, dignity, and respect.

“The hard work of helping others to live their full potential allows them to grow,” he said. “We all have the potential to shine no matter what challenges life presents us.”