COVID-19 and the toll on health care workers’ mental health

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It is well known that physicians are more likely to screen positive for depression and have higher rates of suicide than their counterparts in the general population. But how is this fact exacerbated by the global pandemic of fear, anxiety, and mounting death tolls known as COVID-19?

For starters, health care workers are at the front lines of the emerging disaster, having to set aside their own fears of contracting the novel coronavirus to treat the increasing caseload and critically ill patients. Emergency psychiatrist Dr. Russel Copelan suggested the atmosphere of panic, fear, and isolation that COVID has created is likely to quickly dispense diagnoses of generalized anxiety disorder, obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD), panic disorder, post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), and adjustment disorder which may precipitate a spike of suicidal thoughts and behaviors within the most vulnerable of the general population. Dr. Pamela Wible, an activist for physician suicide awareness, has spoken about the traumatization of physicians during the COVID pandemic, with heightened stress causing emotional instability, distorted beliefs, and dissociation, or the feeling of watching your body and life from afar like a movie. Such symptoms are consistent with acute stress disorder, or severe anxiety and psychological distress resulting within one month of exposure to a traumatic event. Patients exhibiting such symptoms of acute stress disorder have been found to be ten times more likely to have completed suicide. Dr. Wible, who maintains a suicide prevention hotline for medical professionals, has announced six health care workers have died by COVID-19 related suicide to date.

This is heartbreaking, and an outrage. How can we expect our health care professionals to provide for our communities when their needs are not being met? First off, those of us who are healthy, irrespective of age, can stay home in the attempts to contain the spread of the virus. Those who are ill, even with fever, cough, and body aches should self-quarantine at home, as our hospitals can only admit the most ill patients who are severely short of breath. Check in on health care professionals you in your family and friend circles; send them supportive texts and calls, tell them thank you, send them meals and care packages, ask them if they’re having harmful thoughts.

This is the time to take care of each other as well as ourselves. Health care workers are in dire need of personal protective equipment (PPE), which should be renamed to professional protective equipment because unless you are a health care professional or immunocompromised, you do not need PPE right now. Donate any extra masks, face shields, respirators, or goggles you may have to your nearest hospital.

If you or someone you love is in need of help, contact the National Alliance for Mental Illness at 800-950-NAMI, text NAMI to 741741, or the National Suicide Prevention Hotline at 1-800-273-8255. If you are feeling unwell or emotionally overwhelmed but not in crisis, there are options for online counseling and mental health apps. The meditation app, Headspace, has extended free subscriptions to health care workers. To all our health care workers, thank you.

Amira Athanasios is a medical student.

Image credit: Shutterstock.com

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