Social worker diagnosed with PTSD discusses importance of mental health in the workplace

Abigail Fernald
Abigail Fernald(WHSV)
Published: Aug. 19, 2021 at 6:04 PM EDT
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HARRISONBURG, Va. (WHSV) - Abigail Fernald was diagnosed with PTSD, after working on the COVID unit in a hospital for nearly a year.

“It took to the middle of February to just know that my symptoms were enough, that I had kind of reached my limit,” Fernald said.

Abigail started her job a social worker in March, just two weeks before COVID hit. She explained there being a general feeling of anxiety and no one knowing what to expect. Those feelings only heightened as cases continued to surge through the holiday season.

“You kind of saw staff talking more about having nightmares, talking about having crying spells, feeling burnt out and exhausted,” Fernald said.

After the holiday surge, those feelings started to set in, making Fernald realize the trauma she experienced working within the COVID unit.

“I actually went to the emergency room with suicidal thoughts and was out of work for two weeks,” Fernald said.

She ultimately decided it would be best to leave her job in April 2021.

And she wasn’t alone, many workers in the health care setting deal with similar struggles.

“When you’re working in that environment and there’s such a high demand on you to provide care, it’s hard to find care for yourself,” Helen Stichel, Board Member of Central Shenandoah’s chapter of National Alliance on Mental Illness (NAMI) said.

NAMI works to provide education, advocacy and support for people who are struggling with their mental health.

“It provides a space. I mean, I think that is one of the key pieces is people are busy and overwhelmed and there isn’t time. I don’t have time to allot space for my own mental health,” Stichel added.

That space and support are things Fernald says would have been helpful in her former workplace.

“More mental health support for staff will be beneficial, especially with the new rise in cases, maybe peer support groups as well as just open discussion about people struggling,” Fernald explained.

Mental health was not a topic that was openly discussed among staff, but talking about it can help.

“Especially as a health care worker in the pandemic that is so important because if you cannot take care of your own mental health, you will not be able to provide quality care to patients,” Stichel said.

If you are feeling anxious, sad, or having trouble sleeping or eating, Fernald says it’s important to say something.

“Because it is normal, and you’re not alone, and it’s OK to reach for help,” she said.

NAMI has several resources available to anyone who is experiencing added stress or pressure in their lives.

“Let’s say you’re a family member of a health care worker, and you’re concerned about their wellbeing and want to know how you can support them, there are NAMI support groups that are specifically family to family,” Stichel said.

Here are some resources available if you or someone you know needs support:

National Suicide Prevention Hotline: 1-800-273-8255

Valley CSB Emergency Services: (540) 885-0866

NAMI Virginia

Mental Health America

You can also go to the NAMI Central Shenandoah Facebook page or email

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