Mental Health and COVID-19: Part 1
The Impact on Healthcare Workers
Jazzy Danziger | April 23, 2020
Airline safety briefings remind us to put on our own oxygen mask before helping others in the event of an emergency. Attending to your mental health and psychosocial well-being while caring for patients is as important as managing your physical health.
American Medical Association, Managing mental health during COVID-19, April 3, 2020
Physicians, nurses, and other healthcare workers have devoted themselves to a field that regularly requires that they put the needs of others above their own. We celebrate this superhuman selflessness and resilience, not always recognizing that these weighty expectations reinforce a culture for healthcare workers where extreme self-reliance is expected—a culture in which our heroes feel less empowered to ask for mental health support. The COVID-19 crisis is only magnifying the problem by creating care demand surges under dangerous working conditions.
Even healthcare workers are subject to societal attitudes that treat mental illness as separate from, or inferior to, other medical conditions. While the world looks to these professionals to save millions of lives from COVID-19, they may feel guilt over “taking time for themselves” to seek out care. One New York nurse with underlying medical conditions told the New York Times that while she feels frightened every time she enters the ER, taking leave “almost feels selfish.”
The problem can’t be ignored.
A study published March 23 in JAMA showed that of 1,257 Chinese healthcare workers attending to COVID-19 patients, 71.5% are experiencing psychological distress, with half noting depression symptoms, 45% reporting anxiety, and 34% suffering from insomnia. Symptoms tended to be higher among women and nurses.
Healthcare workers were already at higher risk for both mental illness and suicide than the general population. COVID-19 has aggravated the problem with new stressors, including PPE shortages that not only put patients at risk, but increase the likelihood that these professionals will contract COVID-19 themselves. As psychiatrist Jessica Gold pointed out in a STAT Magazine article published earlier this month, “Personal protective equipment is critical to protecting healthcare professionals’ physical and mental well-being.”
There’s also the issue of fatalities among patients who would not be expected to be vulnerable. While the COVID-19 fatality rate is higher among those over 60 years of age, hospitals have reported deaths within younger populations without underlying medical conditions. One physician told the BBC, “Seeing people die is not the issue. We’re trained to deal with death… The issue is giving up on people we wouldn’t normally give up on.”
Academic hospital systems have stepped up to the plate by tapping into their own mental health resources. UNC Health made excellent use of its psychiatric workforce by recruiting professionals from their Department of Psychiatry to staff an emotional support hotline specifically for providers. The University of California, San Francisco’s Weill Institute for Neurosciences developed an 8-week webinar series for healthcare workers on emotional wellness and reducing stress during COVID-19.
Consumer healthcare, wellness, and beauty brands have also contributed to the cause. Headspace is providing US-based healthcare professionals with complimentary subscriptions to their mindfulness and meditation app through the end of the year. Neurocore Counseling is offering free telehealth counseling through May 1 for medical personnel and first responders. ChiliPAD is supporting better sleep by donating new or refurbished temperature-controlled mattress pads to U.S.-based healthcare workers and first responders with each purchase through April 30. Down Dog is offering free use of its yoga and other fitness apps through July 1, helping healthcare professionals stay mentally and physically strong. Both Birchbox and IPSY are donating tens of thousands of “self-care packages.” And there’s a near endless list of brands offering complimentary goods and services designed to reduce stressors like childcare, cooking, cleaning, and lodging.
But the local, individual impact can’t be underestimated. Here are a few ways to join us in championing the mental well-being of our frontline workers:
- Help improve access to PPE by donating to the Frontline Responders Fund, or by giving to your local hospital. Protect the Heroes makes it easy to find your preferred hospital’s COVID-19-related donation portal.
- Provide free temporary housing for healthcare workers. Many frontline workers are afraid to go home for fear putting their families at risk. Own an Airbnb? Have an empty apartment you haven’t leased out, a guest house or an RV? Check local Facebook groups or Nextdoor for neighbors who might be in need of a place to stay. (2e’s very own Alex Madron is spearheading an effort in this area.)
- Reduce the stigma. Talk openly about access to mental health resources. Help others accept that mental health is a medical concern, not a reflection of weakness.
- Reach out to friends and family members who are frontline healthcare workers. Call, video chat, leave a meal on their porch, mow their lawn, show that you’re there to take a few things off of their ever-growing to-do list.
- Continue thanking healthcare workers in your community now and after the crisis has passed.
If you’re a healthcare worker in need:
Please see the American Medical Association’s helpful list of strategies and resources for managing your unique mental health needs. You can also call the NAMI HelpLine at 1-800-950-NAMI (6264) Monday through Friday, 10 AM to 6 PM, or text HELLO to 741741 to reach the free Crisis Text Line 24 hours a day, seven days a week.