‘It’s very difficult to turn it off:’ Linn County Public Health staff discuss mental health toll from pandemic

Published: Sep. 13, 2021 at 8:07 PM CDT
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LINN COUNTY, Iowa (KCRG) - A Centers for Disease Control and Prevention study found a significant number of U.S. public health workers are reporting symptoms of mental health conditions.

It said 53% of public health workers reported symptoms of at least one mental health condition over two weeks. More than a third reported symptoms of depression, over 30% reported anxiety, and nearly 37% reported symptoms of post-traumatic stress disorder. Symptoms were more prevalent among those who were unable to take time off or worked greater than or equal to 41 hours per week.

Staff at Linn County Public Health know all too well the impact of COVID-19. Julie Stephens is the Public Health Preparedness Coordinator at Linn County Public Health, and works with community partners. She said it’s a difficult job to turn off her work brain outside of the workplace.

“For many months we worked long hours, we would go home, and that’s when you answer the Facebook messenger, the text, the calls from friends and relatives,” Stephens said. “Being on call, for two years, 24/7 is a huge burden.”

Alicia Steines is a public health nurse at Linn County Public Health. She’s been a contact tracer throughout the pandemic, coordinating with organizations like long-term care facilities that were deemed in an outbreak.

“Not only are we providing them with guidance and recommendations, but we’re also listening to their stories. So maybe they’ve lost a loved one due to COVID. Maybe they have one individual that’s hospitalized, so hearing that story can take a toll on us as contact tracers,” Steines said.

Steines said that it’s important to develop support systems.

“It’s OK to make sure to take care of yourself,” Steines said.

Workers at Linn County Public Health say the last year and a half has been extremely stressful.

“We’ve been on the front lines responding to COVID-19 for 19 months. Now we’re in an environment where our work has become politicized. And so we’ve been bullied, harassed, threatened for simply trying to do our jobs, and do our jobs well,” Katie Reasner, Linn County Public Health Senior Health Education Specialist, said.

Reasner also handles social media accounts for the department and works to respond to messages and questions from the public.

“Doing our best to get out the correct information as soon as you could was really important to me. So again, I would internalize that and work really hard at responding to people,” Reasner said.

Some staff are also feeling an added impact on physical health.

”I went months without sleeping consistently, for the first time ever I’ve reached out to my primary care about potential blood pressure issues,” Stephens said.

There’s also a concern as the pandemic continues, and COVID-19 cases and hospitalizations continue to rise, again, locally and nationally.

”Seeing cases increase in our community, it feels like a gut punch, it’s frustrating. Because I’m thinking back about all we experienced in the last two years,” Reasner said.

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