“Apart, Not Alone” – Sitting Down With CAMH’s Dr. Sanjeev Sockalingam

Marc Aiello
“Apart, Not Alone” – Sitting Down With CAMH’s Dr. Sanjeev Sockalingam

In a Talk with HIROC chat, we had the opportunity to speak with Dr. Sanjeev Sockalingam, Vice President of Education at the Centre of Addiction and Mental Health (CAMH), to gain his perspective on how the pandemic affected the mental health and wellbeing of frontline healthcare workers.

According to Dr. Sockalingam, what sets COVID-19 apart from past crises is the fact that frontline workers haven’t been afforded a moment to pause and reflect on some of the challenges that have taken place throughout the pandemic.

“There have been plenty of peaks and valleys,” said Dr. Sockalingam, acknowledging some of the uncertainties of the virus early in the pandemic, the impact of anxieties caused by delivering proper care virtually, and the difficulties of managing personal and professional lives of frontline workers.

“All of these take their toll,” adds Dr. Sockalingam. “I was impressed by how quickly people have mobilized across the healthcare system to focus on mental health and addictions. Taking care of our mental health is critical for our frontline healthcare workers and teams.”

When asked what surprised him about the pandemic, Dr. Sockalingam pointed to the many lessons learned by frontline workers and their incredible ability to adapt new ways of providing care.

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Supporting Mental Health and Addiction Programs through Partnerships

Throughout the pandemic, Dr. Sockalingam and CAMH pushed for a focus on mental health in three key ways. In each way, they leveraged their partnerships with the Ministry of Health, Ontario health, and the University of Toronto to spread the word and establish effective mental health and addiction programs within organizations across the healthcare system.

The first focus was to develop and curate mental health resources on their website for both the public and healthcare providers early on in the pandemic. “At the time, we had about 450,000 plus visits to our site,” said Dr. Sockalingam. “We also created the Healthcare Worker Hub specifically, which had curated tools like screening measures, support groups, educational tools and even access to direct care.”

Secondly, Dr. Sockalingam co-chaired Project ECHO Ontario Mental Health, which is a CAMH and University of Toronto collaborative program that virtually trains and supports healthcare workers in providing mental health and addictions care in their local communities. Using teleconferencing and a hub-and-spoke model, Dr. Sockalingam created a safe space for healthcare workers to focus on mindfulness with a team of mental health specialists.

“We created a program called ECHO Coping with COVID,” said Dr. Sockalingam. “We focused on providing support [to frontline workers] so they could care for themselves and promote resiliency, be preventative and proactive in terms of addressing mental health issues that may arise for frontline healthcare workers during the pandemic.”

Lastly, Dr. Sockalingam improved access to direct mental health and addictions care for healthcare workers with a direct referral program, which allowed them to better care for families and patients in their settings. The direct referral program was created in collaboration with Ontario Health, CAMH and four additional hospitals, serving over 260 healthcare workers.

How Senior Leaders Can Support Their Staff

According to Dr. Sockalingam, the most critical thing senior leaders can do to support their staff is to listen and communicate with them. “I think it’s easy for [this] to fall of the radar sometimes,” said Dr. Sockalingam. “We do need to continue to listen to what the needs are of healthcare workers and staff.”

Dr. Sockalingam also recommends being mindful of what time of year it is during the pandemic, such as back-to-school time in the fall, and understand that staff are balancing both their work and home life.

“If you’re working virtually, for example, your personal and professional life starts to blur,” said Dr. Sockalingam. “We need to remind people about self-care and give permission to create a culture of reflecting on our mental health needs, and take time to recharge.”

At CAMH, Dr. Sockalingam has worked to ensure that all staff have a low barrier and high access to support systems, including peer support groups, education and direct access. “We need to make sure that mental health is talked about, reducing the stigma and making it easily accessible in terms of the range of services,” adds Dr. Sockalingam.

What Dr. Sockalingam does to Focus on his Mental Health

Dr. Sockalingam acknowledges that through the virtue of working as a mental health professional, he has had the privilege and opportunity to not only host but also participate in the many great programs CAMH offers, including the aforementioned ECHO Coping with COVID support program.

“A great example is our Mindfulness Moment that we build into our sessions,” said Dr. Sockalingam. “It’s a way to decompress at the end of the week and set the stage for a self-care discussion.”

In a more personal sense, Dr. Sockalingam focuses on spending most of his free time with his wife and two daughters, finding ways to stay active, play basketball and maintain a semblance of a routine.

“Physical health and routine are key parts of a self-care program, so being with my family is a good reminder for me to practice what I preach,” adds Dr. Sockalingam.

Dr. Sockalingam also says that he tries to live the CAMH slogan “Apart, not alone,” through continuing to create virtual opportunities for social connection with friends or family which help him bolster his mental health and wellbeing throughout the pandemic.

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