Doctors and medical workers who fight COVID-19 on the front lines have been rightfully praised and celebrated by many for their diligent work, but few have addressed the toll the pandemic has had on their mental health.
Risks Facing Frontline Workers
While it is known that frontline workers are at an increased risk of becoming exposed to the coronavirus and if infected, they may experience shortness of breath, high fever, body aches, and more, it is a less known fact that the pandemic is also threatening the mental health of many medical workers.
“Prior research conducted after the SARS epidemic suggests that 68% of frontline health care workers experienced a high level of stress. More recently, an article published by JAMA found that during the coronavirus outbreak in China nearly one in every two health care workers reported clinically concerning levels of depression and anxiety. Further, 71% surveyed health care workers reported significant psychological distress,” according to the Anxiety and Depression Association of America.
But once the pandemic slows, life for many medical workers may not return to “normal.” The ADAA reported that a study found two years after the SARS outbreak in Toronto, medical workers still reported increased stress, anxiety, depression, and a feeling of burnout.
Lorna Breen’s Story
Doctors and frontline workers are often portrayed as untouchable heroes, but while they may be heroes, they’re certainly not untouchable. They’re trained in medical school to not grow attached to patients or feel the intense emotions that come with death, but like everyone else, they’re still humans. They still cry and mourn for the grieving families. They still experience fear for their own family’s health and safety when they return home from their shift in the hospital. They still deeply feel.
The New York Times published an article in April about Lorna M. Breen, a top E.R. doctor at a Manhattan hospital treating patients with COVID-19 who took her own life.
“She tried to do her job, and it killed her. She was truly in the trenches of the front line,” her father told the NYT. “Make sure she’s praised as a hero, because she was. She’s a casualty just as much as anyone else who has died.”
But she is not alone. It’s estimated that 300 – 400 doctors kill themselves each year, which is more than twice the rate of the general population and the highest of any profession. It’s important to hold conversations about mental health in frontline workers and break the surrounding stigmas. Those who protect and heal others in the community deserve the same protection and help when it comes to their own physical and mental health.
Strategies to Combat PTSD and Depression
PTSD, depression, and anxiety are not uncommon for those in the medical field. Doctors witness trauma every day and are not always able to detach themselves. But there is hope for those suffering.
- Talk About It — There is no shame in reaching out for help when in need. In the profession of a caregiver, it can be difficult for many medical workers to take the place of the patient and admit the need of help for themselves, but it’s critical. Whether it’s seeing a therapist for Cognitive Behavioral Therapy or calling a close friend or family member, talking is important to slowing down and processing emotions and thoughts.
- Maintain a Healthy Lifestyle — As a medical worker on the frontlines, it can be difficult to prioritize a healthy lifestyle. With long hours and taking call throughout the night, many do not receive an adequate amount of sleep or regular exercise. Fast, unhealthy food or skipping meals all together may also be a common practice for busy medical professionals on shift. It’s important to take care of the body in order to feel and perform best.
- Seek Help — A mental health professional may prescribe medication for depression, anxiety, or PTSD, but if an improvement is not shown, it may be time to consider other options. At the Lehigh Center for Clinical Research, we offer trials with the possibility of participants receiving medication for PTSD and depression.
While many enter the medical field to selflessly help others, it’s not selfish to put your own mental health first. No one can prepare for a pandemic or the trauma they may see behind hospital walls. But no one is alone and there are resources available.
If you are having thoughts of suicide, call the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 1-800-273-8255 (TALK)