Coping in Crisis: Program Offers Free Resources for CUIMC Faculty and Staff

Clinician writes hopeful message for colleagues

A clinician writes a hopeful message for colleagues. (Photo: Jennifer O'Rourke)

As COVID-19 descended on New York City earlier this year, needs of faculty and staff rose to new heights. Many health care workers sought support to help them through a time of unprecedented stress and uncertainty. With cases now down throughout New York, mental health professionals have had the opportunity to reflect on the tremendous pressure brought on by the pandemic and the medical center’s response, including CopeColumbia.

Lourival Baptista-Neto, MD, vice chair for clinical services in the Department of Psychiatry oversees CopeColumbia alongside Laurel Mayer, MDClaude Mellins, PhD, and other colleagues in the Department of Psychiatry. Baptista reflected on CopeColumbia and how the faculty-led initiative for CUIMC employees ramped up to provide counseling sessions, peer support groups, and other resources for managing stress, fear, and anxiety in the time of COVID-19.

What is CopeColumbia, and how did it take shape?

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

Met with abundant support, Baptista led the Department of Psychiatry in partnering 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 aims to build resilience, reinforce self-care, and provide an outlet for the stress and anxiety associated with the COVID-19 pandemic. All resources are confidential and free of charge.

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

What are the differences now in what you are seeing and hearing from participants compared with earlier this year when NYC was the nation’s COVID-19 epicenter?

Needs have evolved month-to-month as the pandemic has progressed, Baptista says. At its onset, sessions were dominated with 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 focus more on adapting to a new reality. Baptista and colleagues are addressing anticipatory anxiety stemming from reopening and the uncertainty surrounding the potential of a second surge. Meanwhile, many are seeking support amid mounting stress and frustration related to the virus’ politicization and containment strategies at a national level. Others are coping with delayed trauma and grief reactions from earlier in the pandemic, including symptoms of depression, anxiety, and post-traumatic stress. 

“Our people are remarkably strong and resilient, but we have to acknowledge that some are still suffering,” Baptista says. While not everyone will need additional help to cope with the stress and uncertainty tied to the pandemic, Baptista wants those who need help to know it’s available any time.

What have you observed across these sessions? Are there any prevailing themes?

Baptista notes that people’s needs are as diverse as they are abundant. The challenge lies in responding and finding the right resources for each group. “People cope differently and may have different needs at different times. It’s important we understand that and have different levels of resources to meet people where they are in this process,” he says.

“As a system, we are all reacting in some way. There's a lot of grief; there was a lot of fatigue, trauma, and anxiety,” he notes. “People are in different stages. Some people need to talk, some people need space and privacy, and we have to understand and respect these diverse needs as we adjust to meet them. ‘One size fits all’ is not going to do it.”

The pandemic also revealed underlying racial disparities, at a time when the country was witnessing the growth of the Black Lives Matter movement in response to widespread racial injustice. Are there resources for employees feeling trauma or anxiety due to racial and social injustice?

CopeColumbia has already addressed a number of requests for this type of counseling, and the service will continue offering services related to anxiety and trauma stemming from systemic racism. “Our focus in these sessions has been on the racial injustice’s impact on the well-being and mental health of our staff.”

Specifically, Baptista and his staff have 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 safety of sons, spouses, and male relatives of color.  

That work has been part of an ongoing expansion in programming led by Baptista and his team, which also includes working with managers to better address the needs of their employees.

“CopeColumbia is taking an interesting turn and widening its scope,” he says. “We are maintaining the original resources offered, but in addition, we are 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.” 

If you’re feeling stressed, anxious, or overwhelmed, resources to help are available. Columbia offers numerous mental health benefits for you and your family. Connect with a mental health care professional today through CopeColumbia.