Mental health workers need fair pay, better staffing, safer workplaces | Opinion

May 24, 2022 6:00 am

More than 400 mental health workers at three Twin Cities hospitals went on a 24-hour strike on May 24, 2022 as they seek higher pay, more staffing and safer workplaces in their first labor contracts. Photo by Max Nesterak/Minnesota Reformer.

As a mental health worker, I can’t count the number of times someone has told me “Oh I could never do what you do.” It is true that mental health care can be extremely challenging, but chances are that all of us, at some in our lives, have been touched by this field. Whether through a friend, family member or our own personal experience, mental health affects everyone.

As someone who has worked in the field for over a decade, I can say that those of us who are suited for this work absolutely love it despite its challenges, and that having experienced, compassionate workers has an enormous impact on the quality of care that people receive.

Due to healthcare administrators’ continued unwillingness to treat their employees with dignity and respect, however, the number of people seeking out this type of important but difficult work is waning.

With the recent unionization of my position, we have some renewed hope, but in the course of our contract negotiations we have become frustrated with our employer’s inaction and unwillingness to work towards real compromise.

We see that it is time for us to take action, which is why we are walking out May 24 for safety, a fair contract and mental health awareness.

When I first started at my current job there were dozens of staff who had worked there five, 10, sometimes 20+ years. Now that number has dwindled to just a small handful of veteran staff, with the large majority of our employees having worked there for less than one year. Management is struggling to fill positions and struggling even harder to retain the employees they already have.

The COVID-19 pandemic has certainly made health care work challenging in ways none of us had experienced before. But it is the continued actions of health care administration causing so many of us to leave the field of mental health.

This is precisely why my union at SEIU Healthcare MN & IA is fighting to ensure that mental health workers receive the protections and wages we deserve to keep good people in this unique and challenging line of work.

I have seen over and over again hospital administration’s refusal to pay employees a wage that reflects how emotionally and physically taxing this job can be. I have repeatedly seen their refusal to increase staff on the units to ensure a safer and more welcoming environment for both patients and staff. I have watched helplessly as patient care continues to suffer because of these decisions.

I have watched assaults on staff skyrocket over the past few years. I have seen suicidal patients removed from increased monitoring to accommodate lack of staff, only to have terrifying close calls with suicide attempts. Many of our patients don’t even regularly receive group therapy due to a lack of therapists willing to work at a facility that doesn’t value their expertise or compensate them fairly.

Some patients barely receive any therapeutic programming at all due to a lack of staff. We get all the lip-service in the world about how “valued” we are. We’re called “heroes” and “essential,” but when it comes time to show us our value with substantive action like fair compensation, increased staffing support and doing something about our pleas for a safer work environment, their hands always seem to come up empty.

The number of people that could “never do this work” is growing, and health care systems are not putting forth appropriate effort to recruit and retain quality workers. In a field that is already facing so many challenges, is the smart choice really to be driving more people away?

People struggling with mental health crises deserve high quality care from compassionate workers who are valued and appreciated for the hard work they do, not treated as disposable and replaceable. This attitude of health care administrators is not sustainable. They are going to need to seriously reconsider their approach to employee retention and start protecting the safety and livelihood of their employees before there’s no one willing to do this work at all.

On the 24th we are striking — not just for ourselves, but for our patients and to bring attention to the critical issue of mental health everywhere.

This issue is too important for us not to take action.

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Stephanie Stark
Stephanie Stark

Stephanie Stark is a senior mental health coordinator at Allina Health who has worked in the mental health field for 11 years and is a member of SEIU Healthcare Minnesota & Iowa.