With 35 years working in a hospital or clinical environment, Pat Clark’s mind is conditioned to handle stress that comes with difficult situations.
Clark, a longtime nurse and lactation consultant with Duke Children’s Primary Care, understands that things happen and people get sick.
But last year, when, in the space of a few months, she dealt with a breast cancer diagnosis and the death of her father, she realized she needed someone to lean on.
“Usually, with me, it’s like ‘We have a problem, let’s figure out what it is and let’s get it fixed,’” Clark said. “I’m usually a pretty calm person. But this was too overwhelming.”
Last spring, Clark sought help from Duke’s Personal Assistance Service (PAS) for the first time. The service provides short-term, confidential counseling at no charge for Duke employees and immediate family members for a variety of behavioral health concerns. The service provides up to eight visits per concern with PAS counselors or referrals to more-specialized mental health professionals or services.
Clark was among 1,540 new clients seen by PAS during the 2017-18 fiscal year, the largest uptick in the program’s 35-year history. In all, the 4,384 counseling sessions provided by PAS during the past fiscal year marked a 15 percent increase over the previous year, and the highest utilization rate to date.
For Nichole Capitanio, the director of PAS, the numbers are an encouraging sign.
They show more of the Duke workforce is aware of PAS and committed to mental and emotional well-being, as encouraged by the Healthy Duke initiative, and the increase in visits could also represent a deeper understanding of the range of issues with which PAS can help, Capitanio said.
“We want to broaden people’s thinking, we don’t want people thinking they have to have depression or an anxiety disorder to come in to PAS,” Capitanio said. “We want people to feel welcome to come here at any time. Especially at the early stage of something. We don’t want people wondering whether they need to come in and talk to someone. If you’re having that thought, why not come in?’”
Most clients who met with PAS in 2017-18 did so for either emotional or marital, family and relationship concerns. And most employees reported that their concerns improved after using the service.
While there are many potential factors leading to the increase in PAS clients, each one came to the service for their own reasons.
Clark’s first call to PAS came last June, after a whirlwind of mammograms, biopsies and doctors’ appointments left her grappling with the reality of a cancerous growth in her left breast. She had surgery scheduled for mid-July, but in the meantime, she needed to go to work.
“I called PAS because I thought, ‘There’s no way I can get back to work when I can’t stop crying,’” Clark said. “It was very hard to focus because you just had these emotions that would overwhelm you and yet I’m in a position where I’m taking care of patients and I need to be able to do that.”
Clark said Capitanio helped her process the diagnosis and focus on her work. Capitanio introduced her to meditation techniques that helped her calm her mind.
After Clark’s July surgery, she was dealt another blow when her father died suddenly. He’d been her cheerleader during the lead-up to her surgery and the early stages of radiation treatment that followed.
Once again, Clark turned to Capitanio for help coping.
“I think if people can come in, we can help them add more tools to their toolbox,” Capitanio said. “They will have more in their repertoire to help them deal with what comes their way, because life is not a simple easy path.”
Clark, who is now cancer-free, returned to work last fall. Amid the familiar rhythms of her job helping new mothers feed their babies, Clark once again feels like herself. The events of last year rocked her, but they didn’t rob her ability to handle whatever life throws her way.
“When you’re in crisis, you can’t think these things through,” Clark said. “Just being able to go to somebody who has that skill and is able to guide you, it helps you get your feet back on the ground so you can begin to process everything.”
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