A pandemic and trauma: Helping those who are helping others

The story of the New York City ER doctor who died by suicide has highlighted the stress frontline healthcare workers are experiencing during the COVID-19 pandemic. Dr. Lorna Breen did not have a history of mental illness, according to her father, but after caring for patients and contracting the disease herself only to return to caring for patients, it all became too much.

Unfortunately, it is projected that frontline healthcare workers will have high rates of post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) due to COVID-19. As it is, healthcare workers have higher rates of PTSD (15%) than the general population (3% to 4%). Further, history has shown that pandemics lead to PTSD among healthcare workers. Explanations for the high prevalence of PTSD include fear of contagion for themselves and their families; unsafe work conditions (such as needing more personal protective equipment); and the breadth and depth of exposure to caring for patients.

And, like the rest of the population, healthcare workers find it difficult to seek help. Stigma concerning mental health challenges is an age-old, ongoing problem. Healthcare workers perceive themselves as the caretakers — not as the ones needing care — putting their patients’ needs ahead of their own.

Caring for healthcare workers

During May as Mental Health Awareness Month, Beacon Health Options calls upon the larger healthcare community to take extra measures to help frontline healthcare workers address PTSD and other mental health conditions resulting from caring for patients with COVID-19.

First and foremost, listening to healthcare workers’ concerns can help hospital leadership understand in what areas their workers will need additional training to help them take control and reduce stress. Below are some examples of trainings suggested by the Veterans Administration.

  • Details about the transmission of COVID-19
  • When and how to screen patients and family members
  • Proper use of personal protective equipment
  • Ethical decision-making about triage

Additionally, healthcare workers can benefit from planning exercises, such as:

  • Practicing response roles
  • Implementing all levels of quarantine
  • Managing limited resources
  • Conducting mental health screening
  • Handling mass fatalities

Act today for a better future

Beacon suggests that behavioral health providers take proactive steps to help their colleagues who are on the frontlines of addressing the medical side of COVID-19. Suggestions include:

Be an advocate: If you work for a hospital or hospital system, you can be particularly effective at sharing with leadership healthcare workers’ professional and physical needs (i.e., personal protective equipment or providing childcare) and how addressing those needs can help ease potential future mental health issues.

Be an innovator to make services more accessible. Frontline workers are functioning for long and difficult hours. For those people willing to seek help, there may be limited time and resources available. Figure out ways to make your services more available. Consider extending your office hours, by starting earlier and/or ending later. Promote telehealth to make services even more accessible and flexible. (Click here for more information on how Beacon can support your telehealth efforts.)

Be an organizer. Help organize onsite support groups with both peers and mental health professionals. Also,  Zoom meetings and webinars on topics of interest are informational as well as efficient when people don’t have a lot of time.

Be a clinical innovator. How can you get healthcare workers to become aware of, and engage in, their own mental health and wellbeing? In addition to the steps mentioned above, such as extending office hours or organizing onsite support groups, there may be some hospital policy measures you can promote to leadership: for example, advocating that all healthcare workers have a mental health assessment, unless they specifically say they don’t want one. People are less likely to say no when it’s part of protocol. Perhaps, every healthcare worker should receive mental health self-management tools from their employer to be used at their convenience.

Be grateful. Showing gratitude is an effective support tool. It reminds people of the important and meaningful work that they’re doing, which can help build their resiliency as they take care of patients.

We’re not all alike. Many healthcare workers will not develop PTSD from caring for patients with COVID-19. However, some will and we can mitigate its effect by being proactive. Beacon calls upon you to think differently to help healthcare workers who are serving our communities during very different times. 


2 Comments. Leave new

I think that making telehealth therapy more accessible is a great idea for health care workers that often have difficultly attending in-office therapy due to working shifts. We are seeing how beneficial telehealth is right now but would also need to be paired with sustainable reimbursement in the future. It would also be great to be able to have licensed professionals conduct telehealth across state lines and be available to treat people in different time zones/work schedules.

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Thanks for sharing such useful content, it should be implemented in all the hospitals.

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