Medical frontliners aren’t just risking their lives in treating patients with the dreaded coronavirus. They are also facing mental, emotional, and psychological torture. This comes from the stress of seeing people on their deathbeds every day. In the United States, some 184,000 people already succumbed to the virus. Many doctors, nurses, and hospital workers also died during the height of the outbreak from March to May. It’s a result of a systematic lack of preparation and an overall weak health system.
Everyone—from doctors, nurses, medical technicians, to oral surgeons—are burned out from having to deal with this health crisis. But is burnout even the right word to describe what they are going through? Experts said that medical frontliners are at risk of facing anxiety and depression during and after caring for their ill patients.
Depression, Anxiety, and Trauma
During the height of the coronavirus crisis in China, a survey of more than 1,257 physicians and nurses came up with a stunning result: more than 50% of the respondents have symptoms of depression, 44% have symptoms of anxiety, and 34% have insomnia. These numbers will likely increase as the emotional toll of the pandemic washes over these medical professionals. It’s bad enough that medical professionals have among the highest rates of suicide. Add to that the unpreparedness of the government and the world, in general, and it’s a recipe for a disaster.
What kind of disaster are these medical professionals likely to face? During the first few weeks after the World Health Organization (WHO) categorized the coronavirus as a global health pandemic, doctors and nurses can still go home to their families. But when the outbreak became too much, many of them decided to relocate their families. They were afraid of spreading the disease to their partners, children, siblings, and parents. But by doing this, they lost that familial connection. They lost the one thing that keeps them sane amid hours in the emergency room.
They couldn’t even share their concerns with their families. Governments and institutions tried to muzzle health care professionals, citing patient privacy as the reason. But in truth, these medical professionals are worried much more than about what’s happening right now, but what’s about to happen in the future. They know there is a shortage of personal protective equipment (PPE) around the world. They also know that there aren’t enough ventilators, beds, supplies, and medical personnel.
All of these add to the worry they have about exposing themselves to the virus. Their concerns about their health will be mitigated by a sign of preparedness from institutions. But, there is none of that. When you take these all together, psychological trauma isn’t far from the equation. It is only a matter of time before mental health institutions are overwhelmed, too.
Medical schools train clinicians to treat one patient at a time. They make decisions based on what’s good for that patient. But during an epidemic or pandemic, they need to think about the best thing to do for a greater number of people. Clinicians have to choose, and that what’s traumatic about being on the front line of the battle.
Soldiers suffer from post-traumatic stress because they are always put in a position to choose between life and death. While not demeaning the choices these heroes have to make, clinicians save lives. They do not need to choose among patients who should live. But in a pandemic—with the shortage of protective equipment, hospital beds, and medical devices—doctors have sometimes to choose between which patient deserves to get the ventilator.
The coronavirus pandemic hits different compared to natural disasters. During natural disasters, clinicians can go home and decompress at the end of the day. They deliver immediate care after the immediate threat and not while it happens. However, when you are worried about bringing home a virus to your family, you will cut this chance to decompress.
Stigma Related to Psychological Problems
Although medical occupations have the highest suicide rate, they are also unlikely to get the help they need. There are two reasons for this. The first reason is they don’t have time. And the second reason is the stigma related to people who seek psychological help.
Many institutions are offering telehealth and flexible scheduling. Those who want to seek psychological help can go through these channels. In the United Kingdom, the Covid Trauma Response Working Group provides guidance and proactive interventions. Experts believe this kind of support will help medical workers become more resilient and confident.
It will take time for health care professionals to heal from the kind of emotional trauma that they have to go through right now. Institutions, governments, and society have to ready themselves for a new kind of health crisis. This one might even be more devastating than the coronavirus.