COVID-19 has taken an unprecedented psychological toll on women, especially those working on the frontlines of the pandemic. While grappling with the myriad impacts of this global emergency, these women have also faced harassment and discrimination—deepening mental health crises in the South Asia region and worldwide. A recent study from CARE reports that “women were nearly three times more likely than men (27% vs. 10%) to report their mental health had been impacted by the pandemic, citing issues such as skyrocketing unpaid care burdens and worries about livelihoods, food, and health care.” The situation may be even more acute when it comes to women health workers, who according the Dr. Prabha S. Chandra, can suffer from the triple burdens of 1) stigma that they may be carrying the virus or infecting others; 2) isolation, due to the greater need to quarantine, and 3) the impacts of experiencing continual death, despair and depression in patients. This session from the 2020 Women Leaders in Global Health Conference addresses these and other unique mental health needs of women in the health workforce during emergencies, with a particular focus on South Asia. It explores why mental health must be integrated into any COVID response moving forward, and how women are leading this charge. The panel features Gracy Andrew, Vice President, CorStone, Prabha S. Chandra, Professor of Psychiatry, The National Institute of Mental Health and Neuro Sciences, Bangalore, Nazla Rafeeg, Head of Communicable Disease Control, Health Protection Agency, Maldives, and moderator, Daanika Kamal, Founder, The Colour Blue. Here are three things we learned:
- Give Mental Health Has a Seat at the Table. Nazla Rafeeg discusses how the Government of the Maldives has prioritized mental health support in its COVID emergency response processes and protocols. This includes ensuing mental health is a key area of focus when responding to an emergency, in addition to contact tracing, vaccination and other disease-specific actions. The country has a multi-partner psychosocial and mental health cluster that offers several interventions including a hotline, referral system, and social protections. Giving mental health a prominent seat at the table elevates its importance, helps to normalize it, and benefits everyone, including the health workforce.
- Train Health Workers to Seek Social Support. Gracy Andrew notes that researchers have found that especially in crises, when people have self-efficacy and social support, they are able to cope. Critical to building emotional resilience is the ability to seek support, and for many there is a need to learn where and how to seek help. Ms. Andrew states that it is a skill that can be taught and must be incorporated into any training for health workers.
- Create Enabling Environments for Empathetic Discussion. Prabha S. Chandra discusses how employers can create opportunities for women health workers to discuss their experiences during COVID. She highlights two examples: an employer-sponsored lunchtime program in which women health workers gather to discuss their feelings, as well as coping mechanisms, and a set of rounds that are more emotionally targeted and center on the feelings of the health worker. Both programs help draw out conversations about how women are feeling in these extremely difficult situations. They give voice to women, help them feel validated and valued.