As U.S. deaths from COVID-19 continue to rise, the research community is beginning to focus some attention on the psychological impact of the pandemic on healthcare workers who cared for patients on the frontlines. Given that previous pandemics have led to post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) as well as other forms of anxiety and depression, there is concern that we may see the mental health of the workers confronted with COVID-19 deteriorate in both the short and long-term.
Previous work has shown that virus outbreaks often psychologically affect nurses more than physicians. In the case of COVID-19, there are unique circumstances that may make caring for patients even more stressful than what has occurred with other outbreaks. For instance, nurses are experiencing guilt after watching patients die alone and after having to inform family members of the condition or death of their loved ones via technology rather than in-person.
Adding to their potential anxiety, nurses have felt helpless as they have struggled to obtain the personal protective equipment (PPE) to protect themselves from the virus and in many cases had to work without such protection. Their personal lives have also taken the same hit as most Americans’, which includes the loss of at least part of their social support system and potentially also the logistical hassles of the loss of childcare or easy access to daily necessities like food.
Fortunately, leaders in healthcare are working to translate the research findings related to the psychological toll of COVID-19 on nurses, hospital physicians, and other healthcare workers to action plans that can help to prevent long-term psychological trauma and mitigate any factors that may increase the likelihood of long-term suffering. For example, based on data showing that nurses display lower levels of anxiety if they are provided with enough physical protection and are not overworked, measures are being implemented to demonstrate that protective measures are in place to prevent the spread of the virus at work and to ensure that workers’ hours can be reduced.
Specific tools to help reduce mental health risks of healthcare workers are also being deployed. As researchers gain more knowledge of the factors leading to psychological suffering in healthcare workers caring for patients during pandemics, these tools will likely become more effective and my help to prevent some of the psychological trauma in the case of a future outbreak.
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