When Those Who Help Others Need Help, A Mental Health Counselor Steps Up | Alice Olson

Nurses, doctors, and other staff in the healthcare industry have become resilient heroes during the COVID-19 pandemic. Faced with an overload of patients while having to work in contagious environments, they continually rise to the challenge as the nation works to get control of the virus – and health counselor Alice Olson has their backs.

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It’s easy to forget that despite their courageous attitudes, nurses are just the same as who they treat – humans. They’re vulnerable to breaks in mental health, and in turn, tragic substance addictions, overdoses, and suicides. That’s where Alice Olson comes in. A licensed mental health and addictions counselor that specializes in outpatient therapy and addiction recovery for Parkdale Center for Professionals, Olson and her fellow counselors work with clients in “professional” roles like nursing, physicians, and dentists.

Due to the pandemic, Olson has seen a frightening uptick in substance abuse, as well as related deaths. “A little over a month ago, we got a national report. I think the number a couple of years ago was, every day, 91 people die from an overdose. When they redid the 2020-2021 statistics, it jumped to 265, [along with over] 97,000 [total overdoses]. [It’s a] horrible increase.” According to the Center for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), 2020 proved to be the deadliest year in drug history – 81,230 overdoses were reported, an 18.2% increase and the highest total ever recorded. 

Addictions are prevalent within the medical field due to the easy accessibility to drugs, physical pain workers endure, and stress and fatigue. The Journal of Clinical Nursing found that 20% of all nurses struggle with an alcoholic or drug addiction, while one in 10 physicians will become addicted to substance abuse within their life.

“We’ve seen a really significant increase of the severity and increase of different mental illnesses on top of the substance abuse at Parkdale. So lots of depression, lots of people with general anxiety disorder, and 70% on average of our population comes in with a history of trauma, [whether it’s from] childhood or the trauma of dealing with a pandemic,” Olson said.

“I was helping these deaf people get jobs and some of them were screwing up because they were using drugs. I couldn’t find anybody to help them [because] way back then in the seventies, there weren’t many treatment programs and there wasn’t an ADA [Americans with Disabilities Act]. Everytime it was a battle to try and get them help.”

Olson never planned on a career that focuses on drug prevention and mental counseling – she earned her degree in teaching. “I found out I didn’t like it,” Olson chuckled. “So I ended up becoming a job counselor for deaf people because I have deaf family members, and so I know sign language.”

Olson was able to connect with someone from a treatment center, getting needed help for her impaired clients, who often struggled with addictions and relapses. That connection would eventually lead to a job as an addictions and behavioral medicine counselor at Methodist Hospital in Indiana. “They were so happy that I could do hearing people as well as deaf and hard of hearing people, so they got a little bit more for their money.”

Olson “thought” she retired in 2015, but ended up facing a near-death experience due to sepsis in her leg. Following rehab, Olson had the strong urge to get out and work instead of slowing down. “I’m not gonna sit at home wondering, ‘oh my god, is [the sepsis] coming again, is it coming again.’”

Olson stumbled upon the Parkdale Center at a substance abuse conference in Indianapolis back in 2015. “The Parkdale Center had a table, and I did it as a joke, really. I walked up to them and said, ‘do you need a relapse prevention specialist?’ They said, ‘god, yes!’” Since that time, Olson worked as an intensive outpatient therapist before switching over to an aftercare therapist.

Olson noted some of the programs Parkdale’s CEO has established, which includes “Support the Front,” a support system that offers various resources such as online and peer support groups, hotlines, and an informational series that provides additional treatment and guidance. “The first event a year ago, they had 12 people show up. The last one that they did, 500 people showed up.”

“Most of my work in the past was with blue collar workers or people who are homeless. So to work with this bright, intelligent crowd… I walked in with some expectations that it might be a little bit different. One, they’re too smart for their own good, they think they can beat the system. But also, the expectations they place on themselves and their employers, even before COVID, because of the shortage of healthcare workers, a lot of these people were working overtime. And they paid the price with family relationships that were getting worse, they weren’t taking care of their health.”

Olson acknowledged her work now isn’t as similar as it was in the past for a variety of reasons, one being the level of intelligence that medical workers carry with them — which can impact their views on addiction — as well as the amount of devotion that’s demonstrated.

“Recently, I got a referral from a CRNA out of New York, and she was one of those that was working early in the pandemic. She said one week, they lost 75 patients that were all on ventilators because they didn’t know what they know now. She didn’t get in here for help until this summer, but in the meantime, her anxiety and depression went out of control.” While she’s back at work, Olson says the CRNA needs to continue getting rid of the trauma in her life.

Nurses are particularly susceptible to what Olson and others call “burnout,” a condition where their mental states and health deteriorate due to the intensity, fast pace, and long hours that come with the field. Olson said she frequently hears situations where workers simply aren’t getting the stoppages they need in order to regroup.

“My boss told me a story yesterday. Sometimes we get students who are in college in the field, they get referred to us, and the 23-year-old [student] said, ‘I get a 25-year-old patient while I’m doing my clinical work who’s got COVID, and he dies 12 hours later and they cram another person in there. I don’t even have time to breath. I have somebody else, and I pray they don’t die under my watch.’ Tons of stories where it just was nonstop. They didn’t get a break.”

“Over the years, I’ve learned, cause I’m the old one there, that short breaks are just as important as a two week vacation in Hawaii. Say, ‘no, let me go down and have a bite to eat and get my blood pressure down and get myself centered.’ These guys have a hard time saying no, because who wants to say the [patient] died while you were at lunch?”

“Some of them are so glad that they couldn’t return to work right away, hoping that we would get this in check and it hasn’t happened yet. I’ve had a couple nurses that say, ‘I don’t know if I’m going back at all to the nursing field.'”

The stress that nurses and CRNAs have had to endure throughout the pandemic is taking an inevitable toll, and it’s made many reconsider their future within the profession. Olson has witnessed this problem firsthand amongst her patients. “I’ve had some other people saying,  ‘I’m not going anywhere near a hospital when I go back. It’s just too much.'”

The healthcare system is also seeing prospective employees turn away. “A couple hospitals have said they’re not getting too many people fresh out of school because they don’t know if they want to deal with [COVID-19],” Olson explained. 

One of the biggest health debates in the United States right now is the COVID-19 vaccination. Just 60% of people in the U.S. are fully vaccinated, and even some of the nurses Olson works with remain unvaccinated.

“I’m assuming they’re not going to give us shots that hurt us. I do understand the fear, but I’m frightened by people seeing a piece on Facebook or a piece on Instagram, and just buying the baloney right off the bat. These nurses that know now that everybody’s done it for a year, they’re starting to get the shot.”

“I don’t know how we reach the other people that say, ‘maybe you’re lucky, but I just saw the article the other day that 40% of the people that do survive COVID, have some kind of lingering symptom that could lead to a disability.'”

“One of the things about addiction is that it’s very isolating. Once people get to a point where they’re not in control of it anymore, they don’t want anybody to know that. So they’re stuck between ‘I’m going to do this myself’ but it’s no, you’re hooked. You’re either going to have withdrawal symptoms, or your anxiety and depression is going to get worse.”

Due to the pandemic, Olson has found herself conducting work with her patients over Zoom. However, she prefers being in-person. “There’s just nothing like somebody, when you’re crying, coming over and putting their hand on your shoulder or offering a hug after something that was really hard for you to talk about.”

“It’s not quite the same on Zoom. I was a little leery that it wouldn’t be as effective, and with the pixel clarity on computers and TVs now,” Olson said, noting the technology hasn’t hindered her therapist senses.“I can see the muscle clicking in their jaw when they don’t want to talk about something, or I can see the eye contact avoidance. I can pick up on some of the stuff even though I may be seeing them from chest up. It’s good. I don’t think it’s excellent, but it’s good.”

Olson continues to be a reliable crutch for those she helps, encouraging them to reach out to her at any time. “I say, if you can’t reach your sponsor and you’re having a hard time, call me. It’s easier for me to talk to you, talk you down, talk you through something, then it is to hear you be ashamed that you screwed up in relapse again.”

“I would just encourage them to realize that caring about someone, and sometimes just telling them that, is such a gift at the right time.”

If you’re a healthcare worker or fellow professional who’s suffering from mental health issues or substance addictions, you can visit Parkdale Center’s website to learn more about the patients they treat and services offered.