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COVID-19 pandemic is taking a toll on the mental health of frontline healthcare workers

Healthcare workers are becoming frustrated, anxious, overwhelmed, burned out and worried about exposing their loved ones to the disease.

Jeff Lagasse, Associate Editor

As the number of COVID-19 cases continues to rise across the nation at record-breaking speed and as hospitals become overwhelmed, the pandemic is taking a dangerous toll on the mental health of frontline healthcare workers, according to a new survey conducted by the nonprofit Mental Health America with funding from the Johnson and Johnson Foundation.

With exposure to a potentially deadly virus and skyrocketing numbers of new coronavirus cases, healthcare workers are becoming frustrated, anxious, overwhelmed, burned out and worried about exposing their loved ones to the disease, findings showed. This suggests healthcare workers need more care and support on the front lines.

WHAT'S THE IMPACT?

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In all, 93% of healthcare workers were experiencing stress; 86% reported experiencing anxiety; 77% reported frustration; 76% reported exhaustion and burnout; and 75% said they were overwhelmed.

Slightly more than three-quarters reported that they were worried about exposing their child to COVID-19, nearly half were worried about exposing their spouse or partner and 47% were worried about exposing their older adult family members.

Emotional exhaustion was the most common answer for how healthcare workers were feeling (82%), followed by trouble with sleep (70%), physical exhaustion (68%) and work-related dread (63%). Over half selected change in appetite (57%), physical symptoms like headaches or stomach aches (56%), questioning their career path (55%), compassion fatigue (52%) and heightened awareness or attention to being exposed to COVID-19 (52%). 

Nurses reported having a higher exposure to COVID-19 (41%) and they were more likely to feel too tired (67%) compared to other healthcare workers (61%).

Thirty-nine percent of healthcare workers said that they did not feel like they had adequate emotional support. Nurses were even less likely to have emotional support (45%).

Among people with children, half reported they are lacking quality time or are unable to support children or be a present parent.

The report said stress, if left untreated, could lead to more severe mental health conditions such as depression, anxiety, psychosis and even thoughts of suicide or self-harm. MHA said that the best way to avoid a mental health crisis is to prevent it altogether, and to do this, it's critical to identify signs of anxiety and depression early on and intervene quickly.

THE LARGER TREND

Across the board, MHA has seen alarming increases in reports of depression and anxiety nationwide. A report released in October 2020 showed that more than 1.5 million people who took a screening at MHAscreening.org reported signs of anxiety and/or depression, with September having the highest rate of severity since the start of the pandemic. Anxiety screenings were up by 634% from January, and depression screenings were up 873%.

Back in March, Dr. James Adams of Northwestern University's Feinberg School of Medicine, and Dr. Ron Walls of Harvard Medical School, wrote that the combination of stress and possible exposure puts healthcare professionals, from physicians, to nurses, to specialists, at greater risk of contracting COVID-19 and potentially spreading it to others.

It's the classic rock-and-a-hard-place scenario -- healthcare workers and caregivers are desperately needed during the global response to the outbreak, but represent one of the most vulnerable populations in terms of contracting the highly virulent disease.
 

Twitter: @JELagasse
Email the writer: jeff.lagasse@himssmedia.com