On the Psychiatric Frontlines of the COVID-19 Pandemic

By Tammy Smith

Commentary

Amid the chaos of COVID-19 patients triaged within densely packed emergency rooms and intensive care units, the mental health professionals working in psychiatric hospitals, who are fighting a mostly invisible, yet starkly virulent side of this global pandemic seem forgotten. Unlike emergency room physicians and intensive care unit nurses hailed as heroes, essential psychiatric personnel not fitted with N95 masks and other PPE (personal protective equipment) are feeling underappreciated and woefully unprepared to treat patients.

The pressures I face as a social worker during this pandemic are enormous. I feel vulnerable. As Brene Brown, the nation’s leading expert on vulnerability, explains, being vulnerable rarely feels brave. Behind locked doors, I bear witness to a different kind of suffering, the plaintive cry of voiceless souls on fire burning with the fury of neglect.

In the best of times, mental health systems are fragmented and ill-equipped to service those in need. I am used to working with little to nothing; I have become an expert of sorts at allocating meager resources. Now I am facing a shortage of whatever limited options remain, a grave situation for my impoverished psychiatric patients. Many have no home in which to return. There is no shelter in place for those without shelter.

The ravaging stories of human lives in peril are a familiar landscape for mental health professionals working with individuals diagnosed with psychiatric disorders. I am intimately acquainted with the topography of suffering—-the dearth of resources and compassion. I instinctively scour this harsh landscape, an array of gaping holes with sharp edges, seeking closure. I trained to deal with adversity, to dive into the devil’s playground. Now I hold back, cautiously taking my temperature before immersing into murky waters.

How can I rescue those at risk for drowning if I am afraid to swim?

According to the news, some folks are now wearing scuba masks for added protection.

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Tammy Smith is a single mother who writes at the crack of dawn before she wakes her son up for school. A social worker from New Jersey, she draws inspiration from her work in mental health. Her work has been published or is forthcoming in The Esthetic Apostle, Ailment: Chronicles of Illness Narratives, and in io Literary Journal.

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