Sept. 11 – ALBANY – Even through her mask, it was easy to tell Sara Cornwell had a smile on her face as she handed out candy and flyers to caregivers on an inpatient unit on the hospital’s main campus Phoebe Putney Memorial Friday morning. As the lead therapist in Phoebe’s Employee Assistance Program, her upbeat attitude and sincere concern for her co-workers are evident.
But Cornwell knows that a healthcare worker’s smile can often mask their pain.
“Our employees see crises every day,” she said. “Even the most capable person will have experiences that they may have to overcome. Just because we are healthcare workers does not mean that we are exempt from being affected by the things we see.”
Along with National Suicide Prevention Week, Phoebe’s EAP launched a “Behind the Smiles” campaign. This week, therapists visited every patient floor at every Phoebe Hospital, as well as many non-clinical and outpatient clinic departments. They distributed these cards which included phone numbers for EAP, the Georgia Crisis and Access Line, and the National Suicide & Crisis Lifeline. Most importantly, they looked employees in the eye and let them know it was okay to ask for help.
“Mental health issues, even suicidal thoughts, can happen to anyone,” Cornwell said. “We have to recognize it and treat it. It doesn’t need to define us. It doesn’t mean you’re abnormal. It just means you have a medical diagnosis that requires treatment like any other diagnosis.”
The issue is even more sensitive and topical for the Phoebe family, following the suicides of two frontline caregivers last year.
“Talking about suicide is a very uncomfortable conversation for most of us, but it’s always been part of mental health that we need to discuss and educate people,” Cornwell said. “This is especially true post-pandemic. COVID has had such a psychological impact on many healthcare workers.”
Phoebe’s EAP offers free therapy sessions to all Phoebe employees, as well as their spouses and children. Although many people do not have such easy access to mental health care, Cornwell points out that resources are available in the community and she encourages everyone to focus on their mental health and take advantage of these resources, need.
“Phoebe’s Outpatient Behavioral Health Clinic is an exceptional option,” Cornwell said. “We have amazing clinicians there who provide therapy and medication management, often with great results.”
She said we should all be aware of the warning signs of depression and potential suicide in others, such as mood swings or isolation or withdrawal.
“We have to be willing to listen and offer a helping hand,” Cornwell said. “Just say, ‘Hey, I just wanted to check in on you.’ You might be surprised by the answer.”
Cornwell said everyone should also get into the habit of discussing their mental health with a primary care physician, particularly if there are changes in our feelings and outlook. A doctor may be able to help people manage their mental health or refer them to a specialist for further care. Anyone wishing to make an appointment with Phoebe Behavioral Health should call (229) 312-7001. For more immediate help, the Georgia Crisis and Access Line number is 1-800-715-4225. The new national Suicide & Crisis Lifeline is 988.
The American Foundation for Suicide Prevention recognizes September as National Suicide Prevention Month. Suicide prevention resources are available on the organization’s website, www.afsp.org.