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Helping the Mental Health of Medical Workers in a Pandemic


by Natasha Tracy - May 18, 2020


Helping the Mental Health of Medical Workers in a Pandemic

Medical workers are accustomed to doing the very best for their patients, even to the detriment of their own mental health. And the mental health of medical workers is really taking a hit right now thanks to the novel coronavirus (COVID-19) pandemic. As medical workers are all that stand between worsening illness and death for the tens-of-thousands with COVID-19, the stress put on these people is almost inhuman. Add to that the lack of sufficient personal protective equipment (PPE), operating rooms and even tents being transformed into intensive care units (ICUs), and physicians of all backgrounds being drafted into emergency room work, and you have perfect storm for medical workers suffering from negative mental health effects. But are there things we can do to better help the mental health of mental workers in a pandemic? Can we protect the mental health of these workers?

Stress and Trauma in Medical Workers in a Pandemic

Stress and trauma are part of a medical worker’s life, especially those who work in emergent situations. However, the levels of stress and trauma in medical workers in a pandemic are even greater than those normally experienced. Around the world, healthcare workers are reporting this right now.

Part of the reason that stress and trauma is increasing in medical workers is because of how unusual this situation is. Medical workers are, understandably, not used to prolonged battles against a highly contagious illness with no known cure. Medical workers themselves are even becoming patients as more of them contract COVID-19 and enter makeshift ICUs. Contracting an illness that you, yourself, have seen take lives everyday is a trauma that few understand.

Another major area of stress in medical workers is the feeling that they are not being adequately protected by the government and by the healthcare system they have devoted themselves to. In a survey done in the United Kingdom (UK) less than one-third of workers felt the government was doing enough to protect their mental health. Medical workers in the United States have reported feeling the same way. Many US facilities do not have enough protective equipment are burdened with limited staffing and have insufficient testing to protect people and this all harms worker’s mental health.

Another area of stress for medical workers is possibly bringing the virus home to their families. While medical workers in a pandemic are used to taking the risk of infection themselves, it is a nightmare scenario when that risk comes home with them to people who never signed up for it. The guilt that workers feel when their families get sick can’t be overstated.

And, unfortunately, stress can lead to increased medical mistakes which worsen outcomes and further degrade the mental health of medical workers.

The Mental Health of Medical Workers in a Pandemic

In a survey done in the UK, 50 percent of 996 medical workers indicated their mental health had deteriorate since the beginning of the pandemic. Younger workers appeared to be affected at disproportional rates (71 percent) and more women than men reported a negative impact on their mental health.

This issue is so severe, in fact, that one study found that 25 percent of medical workers are now considering quitting their jobs.

In a study of 1,257 Chinese healthcare workers who worked with COVID-19 patients, 50.4 percent reported symptoms of depression, 44.6 percent reported symptoms of anxiety, 34 percent reported insomnia and 71.5 percent reported distress. It was frontline workers, like nurses, who had the most severe symptoms.

Natalie Jones, an ICU-registered nurse at Robert Wood Johnson University Hospital Hamilton in New Jersey, says that not only do they experience the stress of their jobs and what they experience with sick and dying patients, but they hold that stress for family members too as they aren’t permitted to visit. Jones, who’s having difficult sleeping without nightmares, told TIME magazine:

“We carry that burden for the families, too . . . And we understand it’s so difficult that they can’t be there. And that hurts us too. As nurses, we’re healers, and we’re compassionate. It hits very close to home for us as well.”

It is important to note that all the negative impact on medical worker’s mental health can lead to chronic burnout. This can lead to workers leaving the field, developing posttraumatic stress disorder (PTSD) or having their own existing mental health conditions such as anxiety or depression exacerbated.

It is thought the affects of this pandemic on medical worker’s mental health will be felt for years to come.

Recommendations for Helping the Mental Health of Medical Workers in a Pandemic

There are many things that governments can do to help protect the mental health of medical workers during this pandemic. The first thing that medical workers in a pandemic want is protection. This means greater access to testing, greater access to protective equipment and support to allow for an ability to maintain best practices. Right now, these things are missing in the US and elsewhere.

A report in the UK suggests that workers need a pay bump of 10 percent as a “COVID-19 pay bonus” plus better mental health provisions. This report calls for creating a “Care Fit for Carers” program to help workers after the pandemic, just as efforts were made after World War One and World War Two to help healthcare workers. Part of this program should be new text, online and telephone mental health support services specifically for medical workers. It is thought support groups may also be beneficial as medical workers who intimately know what others have gone through may be able to offer some of the best support.

But in addition to the equipment, testing and services that can be made available by the government, it’s also helpful for the mental health of medical workers if we all pitch in. Supporting these workers in any way possible – for example, bringing a worker and his or her family a meal or even a card – can go a long way. Everyone from small businesses to major corporations are helping out with this by offering free food to workers, among other things. For example, Built Bar is donating 500,000 protein and energy bars to certain hospitals. Other businesses are in too, like Nike giving away 30,000 shoes to frontline workers.

To help medical workers fighting the pandemic, you can learn more about donation with these links.

• The Frontline Fund in Canada: https://www.frontlinefund.ca/

• A list of worthy organizations in the United States: https://time.com/5817906/coronavirus-help/

References

Chen, C., “An Ongoing List of Food Businesses, Delivery Services, and Restaurants Donating to Healthcare Workers on the Front Lines.” Business Insider, May 6, 2020.

Johnson, L., “Nike Will Donate 30,000 Shoes to Frontline Workers Fighting Covid-19.” CNN Business, May 4, 2020.

Law T., “'We Carry That Burden.' Medical Workers Fighting COVID-19 Are Facing a Mental Health Crisis.” TIME, April 10, 2020.

Mathers, M., “Coronavirus: Half of Health Workers Experiencing Increased Levels of Stress and Trauma.” Independent, April 23, 2020.

TIME Staff, “TIME for Giving: Support Frontline Organizations Helping in Fight Against Coronavirus.” TIME, April 9. 2020.


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