COVID-19 News: CopeColumbia: Helping Each Other

As COVID-19 descended on New York City last year, many health care workers sought support to help them through a time of unprecedented stress and uncertainty. In the aftermath, mental health professionals have had the opportunity to reflect on the tremendous pressure brought on by the pandemic and the medical center’s response. CopeColumbia led the way to help faculty and staff most affected by the pandemic.

Lourival Baptista-Neto, MD, vice chair for clinical services in the Department of Psychiatry, oversees CopeColumbia with Laurel Mayer, MD, Claude Mellins, PhD, Aaron Vieira, and other colleagues in psychiatry. The faculty-led initiative helps Columbia employees through counseling sessions, peer support groups, and other resources for managing stress, fear, and anxiety.

“After the first week of quarantine, you could already feel the temperature across the medical center rising—the level of anxiety and apprehension,” Dr. Baptista recalls. He reached out to senior leaders across the medical center with a simple message: We have to be ready, and we have to respond.

The Department of Psychiatry partnered with ColumbiaDoctors and NewYork-Presbyterian to develop CopeColumbia. The initiative immediately began providing critical support across all schools and departments, including one-on-one virtual counseling sessions and faculty-led peer support groups. The program’s goal: Build resilience, reinforce self-care, and provide an outlet for the stress and anxiety associated with the COVID-19 pandemic.

Demand has grown in the months since CopeColumbia launched, and support from colleagues has risen as well, Dr. Baptista says. “We have been lucky to have a lot of our faculty volunteering. They want to be available to support their peers.”

Needs evolved month to month as the pandemic progressed, Dr. Baptista says. At its onset, sessions were dominated by anxiety, uncertainty, and fear. Health care workers expressed concern over rising patient admissions, climbing death rates, lack of resources, and concern for their families. Many were dealing with the shock of unprecedented new challenges.

Six months later, sessions started to focus more on adapting to a new reality. Dr. Baptista and colleagues addressed anticipatory anxiety stemming from reopening and the uncertainty surrounding the potential of a second surge. Meanwhile, many were seeking support amid mounting stress and frustration related to how the virus had been politicized and containment strategies at a national level. Others were coping with delayed trauma and grief reactions from earlier in the pandemic, including symptoms of depression, anxiety, and post-traumatic stress. CopeColumbia also has responded to requests for resources related to trauma or anxiety due to racial and social injustice and the growing awareness of racial disparities revealed by the pandemic. “Our focus has been on the racial injustice’s impact on the well-being and mental health of our staff,” says Dr. Baptista. Specifically, the CopeColumbia team has addressed concerns surrounding the unequal risk for COVID seen in patients and at home by faculty and staff of color; fears of discrimination inside and outside of the workplace; and concerns for the safety of sons, spouses, and male relatives of color.

“Our people are remarkably strong and resilient, but we have to acknowledge that some are still suffering,” says Dr. Baptista. “We know that the psychological footprint of disasters and pandemics exceeds the medical footprint. Needs are as diverse as they are abundant. The challenge lies in responding and finding the right resources for each group. As a system, we are all reacting and still adapting in some way. There’s a lot of grief, fatigue, trauma, and anxiety, but there is also a lot of hope and undoubtedly growth. We are stronger now as a system.”

CopeColumbia has widened its scope, maintaining the original resources offered but also starting to work with teams from a different angle. “We are focusing on working with leaders and managers on the impact that their behavior has on the collective well-being of their teams and the organization. In addition to awareness and information, we are offering more concrete skill-building and training. That work focuses on recognition and validation, as well as team-building, connection, and self-care.”