Nursing Professor Brenda Marshall Volunteers her Time to Provide Mental Health Counseling to Hospital Workers

Professor Brenda Marshall

It wasn’t long into New Jersey’s fight against the COVID-19 pandemic when psychiatric nurse practitioner Brenda Marshall, a William Paterson University nursing professor and Fulbright Scholar Specialist, realized that healthcare workers were dealing with stressors unfamiliar to even the most seasoned professional.

“There is no comparison,” says Marshall, who has won national awards for research and education, respectively, from the American Psychiatric Nurses Association. “For people who are working in hospitals at this time, you have patients who are colleagues and friends coming in with shortness of breath, and within two hours are on a respirator, and within 10 days are in organ failure. The fear of death, the fear of bringing home this disease to your family, the overwhelming vision of how devastating this disease is and needing your job are very conflicting emotions," she says.

"You want to be there, but at the same time you have fears of going in even with the rationale that you do have the protective gear to stay safe. And when you are going through something like this, your overwhelming grief can impact your capacity to think clearly.”

For the past three years, Marshall has worked part-time with Holy Name Medical Center in Teaneck—currently the epicenter of the COVID-19 outbreak in New Jersey—to provide clinical and educational support for psychiatric unit staff. In the face of the pandemic, she decided to lend her expertise and background to anyone on the hospital staff who needed to talk. She distributed her contact information at the hospital, and the calls started coming in.

Currently, she’s taking calls five days per week.

“Sometimes I’m only on the phone with someone for 10 minutes, other times I’m on for an hour, and sometimes we talk a couple of times a week,” Marshall explains. “My job, volunteering to do this, is to remind people that what they are doing matters. One of the most important things is that people don’t give up hope… and it’s not just doctors and nurses. It is also food service workers and maintenance staff and everyone making sure operations run smoothly so the doctors and nurses can get their jobs done.”

Despite these uncertain times, Professor Marshall’s message to hospital workers and her William Paterson University students is one of perseverance and positivity.

“One of the most important things that I can do is to help people reframe [their thinking] and understand that we will come out of the other side of the tunnel,” she says. “We’ll make it to the other side of the river. And when we get there, we need to have enough energy to start building again.”