By Taylor Knopf

When COVID-19 descended on North Carolina, Rebecca Tallman, a nurse at UNC Medical Center and single mother, decided to isolate from her two children as she cared for patients sick with the contagious virus.

Shows a green screen with a graphic of a heart with a flower stem and the words "welcome to heroes health! As a COVID-19 worker, you are doing so much for others. The goal of the Heroes Health App is to help support you"
Work on Heroes Health began in March, as the coronavirus pandemic turned healthcare providers into “essential workers.” The goal is to provide mental health care for healthcare practitioners facing new challenges.

During her 12-hour shifts, Tallman cares for patients’ physical needs while also providing emotional support. Since hospitals have changed visitation policies to prevent the spread of the virus, many patients are alone.

“So we turn into their support systems,” she said.

Tallman and other nurses have helped those who are dying say “goodbye” to loved ones over the phone.

“The nurses and everyone have to take that home and try to cope with that,” she said.

When Tallman would return home, her house was empty.

During the pandemic, health care workers and first responders have experienced significant stressors. That’s why the folks at UNC Health and Google launched the Health Heroes app last week to help those on the front lines of this crisis track and treat their mental health symptoms.

The app is designed specifically for first responders and those who work in health care settings. It’s free to download from the app store and is available nationally.

How it works

The Health Heroes app prompts the user to take a five-minute mental health survey once a week, which assesses the user’s anxiety levels and symptoms of depression. It also asks questions about the quality of sleep and how much personal protective equipment is available to the health worker.

At the end of the brief survey, the app gives the user a snapshot of the severity of their symptoms and tracks them week after week to show the user trends over time.

For organizations that are participating in the initiative, such as UNC, the app provides anonymous aggregated group-level data to leadership on how their staff is doing.

The app points the user to resources that are available and offers an option to confidentially share their information with their organization’s mental health support team who can refer or connect someone to care.

“It’s really valuable to be able to keep tabs and to be able to provide institutional support to areas of the institution that need it,” said one of the app’s creators Samuel McLean, research vice chair of the Department of Anesthesiology and a physician in the Department of Emergency Medicine at UNC Chapel Hill.

Unprecedented challenges

image is a screenshot asking if a the user has been feeling bothered or anxious in the past week
The coronavirus pandemic has added new levels of stress to an already emotionally taxing job.

McLean started working to develop the Health Heroes app back in March.

“It’s hard to see the sadness that we see in the hospital,” he said. “I think the stress levels that I’ve seen and in colleagues have been far different and qualitatively different than anything in my previous 20 years of emergency medicine.”

McLean not only treats COVID-19 patients, but he’s a survivor of the virus himself. The struggle to breathe and constriction in his chest is something McLean said he’ll never forget.

“There is no education like personal experience,” he said.

Health workers caring for COVID-19 patients are facing unprecedented challenges. A survey of health workers in China treating the first wave of COVID-19 patients found increased symptoms of depression, anxiety, insomnia and distress.

“Front-line health care workers have a high risk of developing unfavorable mental health outcomes and may need psychological support or interventions,” the study authors concluded.

There are so many factors wearing on front-line workers during COVID-19, including the sheer number of seriously ill patients and the number of deaths. The job is physically and emotionally exhausting. Hospitals haven’t always had enough equipment, such as ventilators. The shortage of personal protective equipment (PPE) has led to increased risk and fear of contracting the virus. And some are caring for their own coworkers who are sick and providers have even watched colleagues die in front of them.

Many health workers, such as Tallman, have chosen to live apart from family to protect them from the risk of exposure to the virus.

Tallman made the most of her days away from the hospital and found unconventional ways to spend time with her children while wearing masks outside, 6 feet apart. She pulled the TV onto the porch so the family could watch their favorite shows together, and they had camping sleepovers in the backyard in two separate tents.

“I just think it’s really important during these times to really take care of yourself, your mental health and your physical health,” she said. “Still connect with your family and friends, even if you have to get creative.”

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Taylor Knopf writes about mental health, including addiction and harm reduction. She lives in Raleigh and previously wrote for The News & Observer. Knopf has a bachelor's degree in sociology with a...

One reply on “UNC helps launch COVID-19 mental health app for health workers”

  1. As a therapist in NC, I think this is great! I’m also, curious if there is a place to put therapist info as a resource as I would love to help!

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