How the COVID-19 pandemic is traumatizing health care professionals

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Many of us (especially psychiatrists and physician coaches) have been warning the medical profession at large for weeks now that we are headed for unprecedented numbers of physicians, nurses, other health care workers, and first responders suffering from PTSD. A free support group of psychiatrists for physicians formed rapidly. Several articles have been written. Physician suicides during this pandemic have made the news. And the NYT finally published an article about the traumatic effects of this pandemic on health care professionals and first responders.

In one COVID-19 group of physicians with tens of thousands of members, a “self-care “ hashtag was hurriedly added to the list of acceptable hashtags for member post submissions. Physicians began, on their own, to add a mental health hashtag.

Raising awareness is good. Providing free support groups is good. Saluting our “heroines/heroes” for putting their lives on the line — something preventable that they never agreed to in the first place — is highly problematic at best.

What infuriates me most is except for a few isolated cases where medical groups/centers are creating their own mental health support response programs, very little is being done not only to help, but to take responsibility for the societal, political, and medical systems’ contribution to the very trauma placed on our health care professionals. (I will refer to physicians only from this point on, but please know that I am speaking for all health care professionals on the front line.)

It’s one thing to provide support after the fact. It’s another completely different thing to blindly ignore one’s own responsibility in causing the trauma to begin with. It’s also infuriating that the biggest support provided to my sister physicians comes from the very people who are experiencing the greatest trauma themselves—other physicians. How is this ok?

We need massive awareness.

We need CEOs, administrators, politicians, and the public to speak up and take responsibility for their own harmful actions.

We need widescale effective solutions, which include both changing the conditions and systems that are adding to or creating the trauma and providing support after the fact.

This begins with taking responsibility. This begins with holding those responsible accountable. This begins with setting effective protective boundaries for our physicians—both physical, such as adequate PPE, and emotional, such as insulation from abusive patients, harmful practice conditions, misinformed or mal-intended administrative mandates, and problematic system structures.

All of this requires pouring awareness, resources, and money into adequate mental health and well-being services for all—patients and physicians.

All of this includes creating equitable systems based on a foundation of respect.

This pandemic is clearly showing us all of the inequities that currently exist in our health care systems, all of the abuses within our health care structures that have led to high physician burnout and suicide before this pandemic. By the time we are through this first wave, the fall-out on physicians’ mental and physical health will be absolutely devastating.

The public has no idea. They are suffering from their own trauma and fears (which many patients are now projecting onto their physicians). And physicians will stay in urgent mode, ignoring their own health and well-being, until they literally break down, until they no longer can do otherwise.

We must create solutions now, on a massive scale. I implore anyone who is not suffering from their own trauma, who is not overwhelmed, and who sees the need within their own sphere of influence, to create our co-create solutions. And for those of us who are, perhaps, recognizing our own unhealed trauma for the first time, we owe it to ourselves, our loved ones, and those we serve, to get the support we need. Because above all else, we must first take responsibility for our own health and well-being.

Rebecca Elia is an obstetrics-gynecology physician and physician coach. She can be reached at her self-titled site, Rebecca Elia, MD.

Image credit: Shutterstock.com

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