25 May 2020 | Story Andre Damons | Photo Supplied
Showing support for healthcare workers on the frontlines by wearing crazy shocks.

If the COVID-19 pandemic were a war, the brave healthcare workers protecting the rest of the people against this lethal and invisible enemy would have been in the firing line. The heroes battling this deadly foe in the form of a never-foreseen viral pandemic, are under immense stress and pressure, and might in extreme cases also be at risk of burnout and trauma. 

Raising awareness around depression, other related diseases
It is for this reason that the Ithemba Foundation, a non-profit organisation with two public-benefit goals, namely to raise awareness around depression and other related diseases such as anxiety as clinical, biological diseases, and to support research, organised the #Care4OurCarers for this year’s #CrazySocks4Docs (CS4D) Day on Friday 29 May. Ithemba means ‘hope’ in isiXhosa – the message being that if depression is the illness of despair, hang on to hope. 

Dr Marita van Schalkwyk, Ithemba Director, says: “As health workers we must undertake to serve the sick and needy, but we must also look out for one another, help one another, inspire one another, and seek help when we ourselves cannot keep up the demanding pace. There is always hope – the meaning of ithemba.”

Supporting healthcare professionals 
According to Dr Van Schalkwyk, healthcare professionals need support now, more than ever, and people need to show it in a visual way. “We are therefore requesting the public to wear funky mismatched socks on Friday 29 May to show that we care for our carers. This includes everyone in the health professions, also academic and administrative staff on our medical campuses, as well as our future caregivers – our medical students. We know that they are also suffering immensely from anxiety and fear, and despite this, are still volunteering to work as extras in the fight against Covid-19,” she says.

“It is clear: we as the public must show we #Care4OurCarers and that between us and a deadly virus, they are the ones fighting in the front lines and putting their lives at risk. We hope that the South African public will show how much we value our health workers. And fortunately, all of us have a number of despondent socks in our drawers that will just be too happy to find a mate on 29 May to highlight the importance of the 2020 #CS4D Day together with us, their wearers. Even if we sit behind our desks in home-office style, you can post your sock selfie on www.facebook.com/IthembaFoundation1 to show that you care – let’s use this opportunity to say a BIG thank you to all our health workers.”

The risk of burnout
Dr Lynette van der Merwe, undergraduate medical programme director, School of Clinical Medicine at the University of the Free State (UFS), says healthcare practitioners and Health Sciences students have always been at risk of burnout and mental-health problems due to various demands,  such as academic workload, emotional and physical challenges, or meeting regulatory standards.

“Dealing with the global COVID-19 pandemic and its associated uncertainties asks more from all of us, not least those on the front lines (or training to be there soon).  Add to that the challenge of dealing with COVID-19, and suddenly we are even more convinced of our need for resilience; bouncing back, growing stronger from failure, staying positive in hard times.” 

“From research in the Faculty of Health Sciences on resilience, burnout, and coping, we have seen that in spite of high levels of stress (whether personal, academic or work-related), adaptive coping strategies were associated with increased resilience and decreased burnout,” says Dr Van der Merwe.

The importance of healthcare professionals
Angie Vorster, Clinical Psychologist in the School of Clinical Medicine, says this year the world has been reminded of the immense importance healthcare professionals play in society. 

“Perhaps in 2020, more than any year before, we are called to thank and celebrate and protect our doctors. In my position as the clinical psychologist for around 800 undergraduate medical students, I continue to be humbled and in awe of the immense dedication to serving others that medical students display.” 

“Medical studies are immensely stressful and demand a great deal of sacrifice – not only in terms of finances, time, hard work, studies, and clinical work – but becoming a medical doctor also requires all medical students to be exposed to physical and psychological threats and stressors. This is an unavoidable part of working in the field of medicine,” says Vorster. 

According to her, young people pursue the knowledge and clinical skills that will enable them to save lives. “I can confirm that many medical students, interns, comm-serves, registrars, and even specialists experience depression, trauma, anxiety, eating disorders, bereavement, substance abuse, and other psychological disorders and symptoms during their studies and work.” 

However, says Vorster, there is an added threat that can be even more dangerous than these disorders, and that is the stigma associated with being a medical professional and acknowledging that you have a psychiatric disorder, and are receiving medical and psychological treatment for this.  

“This is the deadliest threat to our doctors. More insidious than any pandemic, is the lack of freedom to access psychological assistance without the fear of being labelled as impaired or incompetent. In fact, medical doctors who receive psychiatric and psychological treatment are healthier and better able to assist their patients than those who suffer alone,” says Vorster.

According to Vorster, medical professionals are exposed to even more loss and suffering than they usually would be during this difficult time of the pandemic; they put their loved ones at risk of infection, and place their own lives at risk in order to serve their patients. 

• For medical students, there is a small bonus: Ithemba wants them to post their sock selfies on www.facebook.com/IthembaFoundation1 and encourage family and friends to like their sock selfies. The student with the most likes on each campus will get a cash prize of R1 000. 

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