Pandemic Pressures Drive Increased Need for Mental Health Technicians
The COVID-19 pandemic is unlike anything the world has ever seen before. Every country has been impacted. The subsequent lockdowns, requirements to work remotely and social distancing have caused loneliness, isolation, a social disconnect and burnout for parents. When coupled with the grief and fear the pandemic has created, it is clear why mental health services are fast approaching a crisis point. Within the service, one group that will shoulder an increased share of this burden is the mental health technicians.
Mental Health Technicians
Mental health technicians are also known as psychiatric technicians. They have a critical role across the mental health service, working on inpatient units, within the community, at long-term care, and rehabilitation facilities. While they have a supportive role, it is a critical role, with the group working alongside physicians, psychiatrists, social workers, psychologists, and counselors to assist patients who are suffering addictions, disabilities, and mental illness.
The role of a psychiatric technician involves completing admission documentation, administration of medicine, undertaking psychoeducation or therapy sessions, taking patient observations, assisting with patient activities of daily living, observing patient behavior, and listening to patient concerns. Other professionals within the service may see the patient only once every few days. Psychiatric technicians are likely to have multiple contacts with the patient daily, and as a result, are likely to be best placed to comment on the patient’s current state of mind.
Prior to the pandemic, the healthcare system was already bulging at the seams. Universally, it was forecast that there were serious shortfalls on the staffing front. Healthcare services, as an industry, had been under pressure both in the US and globally for several years. This was due in part to an aging population of baby boomers reaching retirement age, people living longer due to new treatments and technologies, and the ability to control many of the environmental factors that had previously resulted in premature death.
Mental Health Services
Within the healthcare system, mental health is one area that has experienced considerable growth over a sustained period, with the service already having insufficient places in hospital units, community facilities, and addiction programs. The opioid endemic had contributed to the increased demand, but so had the aging population. The technologically enhanced world, while having its advantages, has brought some unique challenges, and depression and anxiety rates have escalated as a result.
Mental health budgets were already stretched to capacity, there were staffing shortages across the board, and the predicted job growth for all mental health professionals was trending skyward. Despite all this, it would have taken a brave person to predict the events of the last 12 months, and even more so the effect the events would have on mental health services.
Psychiatric Technicians Workload and Responsibilities
Against this background, the role of psychiatric technicians has gradually evolved, and they have taken on more responsibility. They are often a patient’s first port of call both within the community and in an inpatient setting. An increasing part of their role relates to spending time with the patients, listening, and observing. With mental health services overstretched, psychiatric technicians are increasingly being asked to step up and take responsibility for more aspects of patient care.
Within an inpatient setting, psychiatric technicians would likely have the greatest staff presence out on the floor and documenting the patient’s mental state and behavior daily is becoming a more common aspect of the job.
COVID-19 Factors Driving the Increased Demand on Mental Health Services
The pandemic threw life as we knew into chaos and presented mental health challenges on a scale that has probably never been seen before. Several factors have contributed to the pressure mental health services are currently facing.
Isolation and Loneliness
There are few countries globally that were not subject to at least one extended lockdown over the course of 2020. Reports in media of a loneliness epidemic began to circulate with young adults and the elderly among the hardest hit. Before the pandemic, 25% of young people reported feeling lonely most of the time, as the isolation associated with lockdowns kicked in, this figure grew to 61%.
Loss of Social Contact
Undoubtedly the loss of social contact contributed to the mental health issues. For young people at a stage of their lives when socialization is at the forefront, these activities were hugely curtailed. The inability to meet as a group and the closure of social venues, restaurants and bars limited the contact this group had outside of their homes. For those new to college, the social whiteout effectively left them without support networks as they transitioned to life away from their families.
At the other end of the spectrum, the elderly were left isolated from their family in rest homes as strict rules relating to visiting kicked in. For those living alone, restrictions meant they were cut off from their families.
Fear can have a devastating effect on a person. It disrupts a range of brain processes relating to the regulation of emotion, decision-making, and interactions with other people. The pandemic was the great unknown; with mortality rates escalating, the fear of death became a preoccupation among some, especially in areas where the pandemic was taking a high toll.
Grief is a disabler in any circumstances and something difficult to overcome in normal circumstances. Several factors heightened the impact of grief over the pandemic. The number of people dying, many of them unexpectedly, was a factor; however, the inability to say goodbye, and then being unable to hold a funeral due to the restrictions around meeting in numbers meant that people were unable to grieve properly, which has had a flow-on effect on mental health.
Increased Pressure on Mental Health Services as a Result of Pandemic
The above factors have resulted in more people seeking mental health services, many acutely requiring immediate intervention. This placed huge pressure on a service that was already bursting at the seams.
Depression and Anxiety
Depression and anxiety are often manifestations of isolation and loneliness. In the months before the pandemic, the proportion of people suffering from depression was 10%. By June 2020, this had risen to 19%. The increase in those suffering anxiety was almost fourfold, as it went from a pre-pandemic level of 11% to 42% over the course of the pandemic.
The groups to date most affected by suicide have been those under 30 and the female population. Although 2019 represented the first decline in the suicide rate in over ten years, research relating to suicide rates over the course of the pandemic has predicted an increase of between 1% and 145%.
An already high substance abuse rate is escalating due to the pandemic with 13% of Americans either starting or increasing use over the pandemic. An increase in the number of drug deaths has been noted in 30 US states.
Fear of the Unknown
When a person becomes unwell to the degree they require the intervention, it is typically the cumulative effect of a range of factors building over time. One of the little talked about effects is the yet-to-be-seen mental health issues, which are likely to escalate over the next few years, especially if the economy remains depressed.
Increased Demand for Staff
The combined effect of the increased demands on mental health services has led to the following predictions of the percentage increase in staff needed for mental health services to meet the ongoing demand:
- Specialist mental health nurses 26%
- Psychologists 5%
- Social workers 13%
- Substance abuse counselors 25%
- Mental health counselors 25%
- Psychiatrists 12%
- Mental Health Technicians 12%
Impact on Psychiatric Technicians
Psychiatric technicians are likely to be some of the most impacted professionals within mental health. Although the increase in demand has been predicted at 12%, many consider this an underestimation. The presentations due to COVID-19 are all in some way related to not being around people and not having people to share the burden. It is not unreasonable to expect part of the recovery will involve spending time with people and talking about their situation.
As the person on the ground, psychiatric technicians are likely to shoulder a good portion of this workload. In addition, a number of these conditions require close patient supervision, for example, suicide watches, a job that a psychiatric technician often carries out. Given the hierarchical nature of the medical profession, as staff shortages reveal their true impact, tasks will fall to the next qualified individual, meaning an expectation is already developing that psychiatric technicians, as the daily contact, will take on increased responsibilities.
The evolution of the mental health technician role with its increased responsibilities and the fact they are constantly overworked due to a shortage of qualified psychiatric technicians are some of the key reasons that this group of professionals should ensure they have medical malpractice insurance. Medical malpractice insurance, also known as medical professional liability, covers the technician in the event something goes wrong within their role, or a patient perceives inadequate care.
Staff shortages, assuming additional responsibilities, and a service operating above capacity increase the likelihood of an error or omission occurring in the workplace. Psychiatric technicians have an ongoing visible presence in the care of most mental health patients and are increasingly likely to be named as a party when a patient makes a medical malpractice claim. It is, therefore, crucial that they carry professional liability insurance.
Benefits of Professional Liability Insurance for Psychiatric Technicians
Professional liability insurance covers the cost of legal representation during the investigation of any claims made against you, and settles claims on your behalf. It provides health professionals with the reassurance needed to do their job without fear of legal repercussions.
The pressure on health professionals looks set to continue in the wake of COVID-19 and with the true mental health burden still an unknown factor, mental health technicians are likely to experience ongoing pressure to shoulder a greater burden of the increased workload. They are likely to be asked to work longer hours and more shifts to cover the industry shortages. One of the net effects of this will no doubt be increased stress levels and potential burnout.
Tired, overworked professionals and patients who have not had their demands met are the perfect recipe for medical malpractice claims. NOW Insurance has over 20 years’ experience providing insurance and settling claims for allied health professionals, including psychiatric technicians and other mental health providers. Learn more about our coverage for these professions.
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