Compassion-Based Interventions: Addressing the Mental Health Burden of COVID-19

COVID-19 has taken a toll on mental health, with particular impact on nurses, doctors, lab technicians, and community health workers who have been pushed to extreme measures. A recent article published by France 24 cites the trauma, fatigue, and anxiety of French health workers. An article in the Salt Lake Tribune quoted a nurse from the University of Utah’s ICU unit after a day of record-breaking cases, saying “these last seven months have pushed myself and my colleagues to our limit. This isn’t sustainable and we’re exhausted.” In New York City, the mental strain was attributed as the cause of  suicide for a doctor who worked through the height of the pandemic.

The Task Force’s Focus Area for Compassion and Ethics (FACE), which seeks to bring compassion and ethics to the center of global health practice, is collaborating with partners to address the growing burden of stress suffered by health care and public health workers, both in the United States and globally. 

“By bringing compassion-based interventions to bear on these growing challenges to mental health, we seek to not only foster greater support and resilience for those who are suffering, but also to restore the motivating and sustaining force that compels many of us to enter global health in the first place – compassion,” said Ashley Graham, Senior Fellow at FACE.

Mapping Compassion and Love in Global Health

Earlier this year, FACE hosted a ground-breaking meeting on the ‘Epidemiology of Compassion and Love,’ which drew 70 scholars and practitioners from the U.S. , Europe, and Africa to discuss how to cultivate compassion in global health and measure its impact. Dr. Thupten Jinpa, PhD, founder of the Compassion Institute and English translator to the Dalai Lama, pointed to the challenge of bringing our “need [for kindness, sensitivity, and understanding] — that principle of compassion –to the level of scale so that everybody benefits from it.”

In a recent Global Health Compassion Rounds, hosted by FACE and the Global Learning Laboratory for Quality Universal Health Coverage at the World Health Organization, Dr. Stephen Trzeciak reviewed the robust evidence for the positive impact of compassion – not only on patient healing but also on the well-being of health care providers.

Nurturing resilience 

Through research with the Bruyère Research Institute and other partners, FACE is embarking on a project in Ghana and Cote d’Ivoire to foster resilience in community health workers who are responding to COVID-19. FACE is also partnering with the Center for Compassionate Leadership to offer a course on Compassionate Leadership and Resilience, in which global health leaders from four continents are participating. 

In addition, FACE and  the Compassion Institute are offering ‘peer processing groups’ to public health officials and epidemiologists in the United States who face burnout due to COVID-19.  

Although these programs were developed for different groups of public health workers, they share two key elements: 

(1) a platform for connection among peers, which is integral to sharing experiences and building meaningful support networks; and 

(2) strategies and tools for coping with mental and moral distress and building greater resilience. For example, the Compassionate Leadership course explores the systemic causes of burnout and aims to equip practitioners with  tools to restore their sense of well-being and resilience.

Practicing Self-Compassion

One of the essential skills that FACE seeks to cultivate is self-compassion. “Health workers are committed to improving the health and well-being of people around the world, but unfortunately, we tend to neglect ourselves in the process,” said David Addiss, MD, Director of FACE. “This can be particularly difficult during periods of crisis, when the urgency to respond overrides our need for personal well-being.” 

Self-compassion is the ability to recognize one’s own suffering, experience empathy toward oneself, and act to relieve that suffering. With the high levels of stress brought on by the COVID-19 pandemic, practicing self-compassion is an increasingly important practice. 

Compassion is a primary motivating force for many in global health. By cultivating compassion and developing the capacity for greater resilience at the individual and organizational levels, health care workers  will be better able to respond to the COVID-19 crisis, carry forward their important work, and support each other with care and renewed energy. 

How self-compassionate are you? Take the online quiz developed by Dr. Kristen Neff to find out, and learn more about self-compassion and other compassion-based interventions through FACE’s Compassion Hub.

Header photo: COVID-19 first responders from the country of Georgia snap a selfie during a long day of coronavirus surveillance in hotspots throughout the country. Photo credit: Georgia FETP

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