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      Frontline health worker Vusumuzi Christopher Mnqayi speaking with a patient

      “My heart and mind feel lighter": Meet a health worker who leaned on support from a unique psychological training program during the pandemic

      Vusumuzi Christopher Mnqayi didn’t realize how much of a toll his job as a community health worker in South Africa was taking on his mental health. That is, until he received coaching that has transformed the way he copes with the challenges of his crucial front line role.

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      In a year that has been nothing short of unprecedented, countless healthcare workers have risen to the challenges presented by the COVID-19 pandemic in unprecedented ways.

      Despite shortages of personal protective equipment, long hours and caseloads, and concerns for their own personal health, nurses, doctors and other frontline health workers continued to step up for patients and their loved ones.

      Vusumuzi Christopher Mnqayi

      Vusumuzi Christopher Mnqayi

      But as the pandemic has lingered on, the toll on these healthcare professionals has been profound: Studies have shown that those who work directly with coronavirus patients are at a higher risk for depression, anxiety and insomnia.

      That’s why, in March, the Johnson & Johnson Family of Companies and the Johnson & Johnson Foundation announced that they would commit $50 million to help support organizations and healthcare workers around the world battling the virus by funding programs that support mental health, coronavirus testing initiatives, contact tracing technology and more. This month, the company fulfilled on its commitment, distributing the full $50 million.

      One program that has benefited is the Masked Heroes campaign, which helps support community healthcare workers on the frontlines of the COVID-19 crisis in South Africa by sponsoring workshops and providing counselors to help teach new skills, coping strategies and self-care tactics.

      “The Psychological First Aid Workshop I took through the Masked Heroes campaign changed my life,” says Vusumuzi Christopher Mnqayi, a healthcare worker based in Durban. “I learned how to be safer when I enter people’s homes and calmer when I’m dealing with especially challenging situations. The training also opened my eyes to the importance of getting professional help myself, and that has helped me put down everyone else’s troubles that I’m carrying.”

      As we approach the end of December—a time to traditionally reflect and look back on the events of the past year—we caught up with Mnqayi to see how he’s doing and learn more about the journey he has been on this year as a frontline healthcare worker.

      Vusumuzi Christopher Mnqayi: “My job as a community healthcare worker has always been challenging. A big part of my work is identifying orphans and vulnerable children so we can get them the care they need, as well as providing home-based healthcare screenings and services for the communities in KwaZulu-Natal, a province of South Africa.

      KwaZulu-Natal, South Africa

      KwaZulu-Natal, South Africa

      I’ve been doing this work since 2005, but nothing could have prepared me for this pandemic.

      As the virus spread, my work quickly became focused on screening people for COVID-19. I educate the community about the signs and symptoms of the virus and help them understand the importance of washing their hands, maintaining social distancing and using other prevention methods to limit the spread of the virus.

      But that doesn’t mean my other work—which involves educating my patients about gender-based violence, as well as screening for HIV and tuberculosis—has stopped. Right now, we have a dual pandemic in our communities, HIV and COVID-19, which means a typical day for me now includes distributing condoms and masks.

      My work is especially draining when I meet community members who question whether COVID-19 really exists. On a recent home visit, I was warmly invited into a home by an older woman living with her extended family. But when I asked if I could test her and her family for COVID-19 and provide tips on how to best prevent infection, I was shooed away.

      It’s so disheartening when this happens, because as a healthcare worker, I come to people’s homes in good faith, even putting my own life in danger to help them. When I’m unable to screen them—even when I can see they have COVID-19 symptoms and are very ill—it’s incredibly difficult. Over the last year, I have had more bad days than good ones.

      The training focused on how I can better take care of myself before and after engaging with people in crisis. Learning how to do this was a revelation, showing me just how much of a toll working on the front lines was taking on me—and on my wife and son.

      The Workshop That Changed Everything

      As part of the Masked Heroes campaign, I was able to take a Psychological First Aid workshop. The training focused on how I can better take care of myself before and after engaging with people in crisis. Learning how to do this was a revelation, showing me just how much of a toll working on the front lines was taking on me—and on my wife and son.

      The workshop was filled with simulations and role-playing that opened my eyes to what it’s like to be a person in crisis, which helps me care for my patients with more compassion. I also learned more about the impact responding to a crisis situation can have on healthcare workers like myself. One of the most profound lessons was understanding how important it is to not take on another person’s issues as my own, which can lead to stress, anxiety and depression.


      Mnqayi leading a health info session

      During the training, there were some hard truths that surfaced.

      I realized that, by not taking care of myself, I was becoming increasingly hard to be around. Little things that happened at home would annoy me, and I’d respond by getting angry. As a healthcare worker in the field, I see everything that’s making our communities sick right now—from increased gender-based violence due to unemployment to an uptick in teenage pregnancies because lockdowns are preventing kids from going to school. All of it just feels like too much sometimes—and it was filling me with rage.

      I can honestly say that taking part in the workshop has since changed my life. Due to the pandemic, it can be easy to lose sight of the value of what I do. But lately, I’m finding more meaning in my day-to-day work. Even better, I notice how much the training is helping me at home, too.

      Now, I have new skills that can help me blow off steam and stay calm. I pray every morning before work and take walks around my neighborhood when I get home. I’m better able to notice my own emotions when others are talking, so I’m able to respond, not react. These days, my heart and mind feel a little lighter, and I believe it’s because I know how to better balance my work and home life.

      My wife is a teacher, and she often comes home from work feeling down because of the heart-breaking stories her students share with her. When I ask about her day, I’m now able to really listen to her and talk about how to overcome the most troubling situations. We talk to each other with more empathy and compassion. I actually shared the Psychological First Aid guide with her, and it’s inspired discussions about how we can both take those concepts and do better at work and as parents.

      And best yet, I know now that I never have to suffer alone. Just like I connect my patients to support services, I can rely on others to help me manage my stress so I’m not carrying all of it on my own.

      Now that I know better, I’m able to do better—and I’m so grateful for that.”

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