The 2019 novel coronavirus (COVID-19) pandemic is an international public health emergency. It’s affected 37,000,000 people (as of writing) and caused the deaths of more than 1,000,000. Apart from the biological context of the infamous virus, and due to the long-term changes in daily living the pandemic has caused, coping with the pandemic has challenged the psychological resilience of many people – including healthcare professionals, aka the frontliners of this war against COVID-19.
Due to the pandemic, high levels of stress, anxiety and depression have already been observed in today’s healthcare professionals. Trying to reduce the infection rate, caring for a growing number of patients, and dealing with deaths can take their toll on tired health professionals.
Simple leisure, such as reading and watching Netflix or grander forms of relaxation (allowable during the pandemic) such as booking atable showeror massage services with a therapist, can alleviate a medical professional’s mental stress. But only for a short time.
Considering the scenario, healthcare authorities need to identify groups with a high risk for developing mental and emotional issues to carry out early psychiatric and psychological interventions. Included in the group are medical workers assisting confirmed or suspected COVID-19 patients. Primary care workers, such as medical doctors, nurses and nursing technicians, who are in direct contact with patients, are also most vulnerable to infection and mental health concerns.
Understanding the Pandemic’s Impact on Mental Health Workers
During pandemics, the world goes into either a shutdown or a slowdown in daily activities. Individuals are encouraged to self-isolate or practice social distancing to reduce the transmission of the disease between people. Health professionals, on the other hand, go in the opposite direction.
Due to the drastic increase in demand for healthcare services, medical teams face long work shifts, often accompanied by precarious infrastructure and fewer resources, and with the need to wear Personal Protective Equipment (PPE) (which causes difficulty in breathing and physical discomfort).
Also, many medical professionals may feel unprepared to carry out the interventions needed for patients. In addition, there is also the fear of them being carriers who will spread the virus to their friends, families, or colleagues. As a result, many professionals choose to isolate themselves from their loved ones, which drastically narrows down their social network and changes their routine.
These factors can trigger a variety of psychological pressures, which can result in different degrees of helplessness, loneliness, or a series of emotional states, such as irritability, stress, despair, and mental fatigue.
The workload combined with the symptoms of stress make medical professionals more vulnerable to psychological stress, which makes them prone to mental health concerns. On the other hand, healthcare professionals serving in emergency departments may experience uncertainty, fear, and insecurity along with physical fatigue.
Secondary traumatic stress (otherwise known as vicarious trauma), a phenomenon where healthcare professionals experience symptoms similar to their patients’ due to continuous exposure, is also common during the pandemic (and other medical catastrophes). The primary symptoms of vicarious trauma include fatigue, appetite loss, lack of sleep, irritability, and attention disorders.
Finally, professionals directly involved in the care of highly contagious COVID-19 patients suffer from social stigma. Since people are scared of the virus, they are also scared of professionals who could be “spreading them around.”
At the other end of the spectrum, medical professionals are considered superheroes. The status can add personal value but it can also give additional pressure since superheroes ‘should not fail’ or “do not get sick.” Should healthcare professionals fall short, they would experience moral suffering.
What Should Be Done
Medical professionals who are in direct contact with COVID-19 patients must undergo regular mental health monitoring and screening, especially concerning anxiety, depression, and suicidal tendency. Healthcare authorities should therefore provide treatment to professionals experiencing serious mental health concerns. It is also important to identify the secondary psychosocial factors that can generate stress, e.g. professionals living with young children, dealing with chronic illnesses, among others.
Authorities should also use psychological support measures to take into account their professionals’ emotional expression. Psychological intervention (PI) offers patients coping strategies to deal with situational anxiety or intrusive thoughts triggered by the pandemic. In healthcare facilities with enough resources for prevention and safety, online psychological counseling, psychotherapy, and informative folders promoting mental health are recommended.
Finally, authorities must also develop effective communication with medical teams to establish a sense of cooperation and reciprocity, which allows professionals to express their worries, anxieties and feelings of burnout. All medical facilities must also create a proper space for listening and exchanging of feelings to prevent burnout.
COVID-19 impacts both patients and their doctors, with the latter getting the brunt of the pandemic. As the frontliners in the fight against COVID-19, healthcare professionals should also be the priority of mental health services to protect them from the psychological impact of the pandemic.