We clapped for them. We sang for them. We put out rainbows and appreciation messages for them. The past year has been nothing short of challenging for our valiant doctors, nurses and frontline workers because not only have they been battling the Covid-19 virus but have also been braving its toll on their Mental Health and wellbeing through this time.
There are no masks for Mental Health protection and the pandemic has definitely taken a toll on our Covid-19 warriors as well. Working on the front lines of the pandemic can be stressful and difficult which can lead to feelings of overwhelm, exhaustion, burnout and in extreme cases, Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) as well. While it is important to be thankful to our frontline workers for their efforts in putting their own lives on the line to save others, we also need to look at the implications this will have on their Mental Health and Wellbeing, ways in which they can take care of their Mental Health themselves and how the system can better support them in that quest.
Over the years, research data globally has shown that healthcare workers at the frontline are at a considerably higher risk of developing Mental Health conditions than the general population, including studies that show that nearly half of all physicians experience burnout and have higher rates of suicide than the general population. These are job roles which even before the pandemic were highly intense be it with regards to the nature of work, long shifts, handling emergencies, quick decision making (often about life and death situations) as well as dealing with exposure to suffering and death. These would often contribute to a sense of helplessness, guilt, depression and anxiety particularly in those on the frontlines. The pandemic however has only served to increase these concerns manifold. There is also research from previous epidemics and pandemics that have shown that the Mental Health effects on frontline healthcare workers can persist long after the healthcare emergency has ended. At present, we are not fully in a position to understand what the exact implications of Covid-19 might be, but we can see from past trends and current events that there are going to several severe implications which will go beyond the short term fatigue and burnout.
Frontline workers are facing long hours, heavy workloads along with the potential stigma and discrimination due to the pandemic. We have heard several cases where housing societies have not wanted frontline workers to return to their homes during the peak of the pandemic due to fear of the Covid-19 virus. We have also heard of stories where doctors and other frontline workers have been subjected to abuse and assaults (both physical and verbal) during this time, especially at the hands of distraught family members who have either not been able to get the medical facilities for loved ones due to the system being overwhelmed or on the passing away of a loved one. They have often put the health of others before their own. Many times, they’ve even put the health of others ahead of their own and have collectively carried several responsibilities such as that of handling their own stress and mental wellbeing throughout an extraordinarily challenging time, keeping themselves, strangers, and their families healthy, battling long and laborious hours to keep their communities functioning and often bearing the brunt of others’ stress and frustration. These incidents and working conditions if left unchecked can lead to additional burnout, fatigue and mental distress. They are also likely to face extreme stress and exhaustion due to the nature of their work, high pressure environment and extended working hours which can also negatively impact their wellbeing and Mental Health. While some surveys are reporting increase in symptoms of depression, anxiety, distress and insomnia amongst doctors, there are also studies which predict that 25-40% of frontline workers will experience PTSD post the pandemic.
For frontline workers it is important to get support for their own Mental Health and Wellbeing as now more than ever their roles have become even more challenging and taxing. Talking to a trusted person can definitely help to ease off the feelings of overwhelm. While some Mental Health charities like the Samaritans have set up dedicated lines for frontline workers to call in on and talk to trained volunteers, hospitals and medical establishments too need to look at having inhouse psychological support available to workers who might need to avail these services during their work. Should doctors and frontline workers find themselves feeling fatigued and exhausted, it is helpful if they talk to their supervisors and if the establishment can develop better working systems and schedules to prevent burnout amongst their task force. Resiliency training, Mental Health support and wellbeing sessions can be organised for Doctors and other frontline workers in addition to appointed a designated safeguarding team lead with increased access to care and support. Having support groups for frontline workers can also be helpful as they can share their feelings and experiences with others who may also be going through similar experiences - this can help them feel understood, validated and less alone.
While our frontline workers are uniquely positioned to address some of the most pressing issues related to the COVID-19 pandemic, we need to mindful that their ability to provide clinical care does not make them invulnerable to the psychological toll accompanying it. We may term our doctors, nurses and frontline workers as heroic and brave superheroes for their strength and dedication, but let’s not forget that they too are human, and as humans, we all have Mental Health, and that needs to be protected and prioritised too.
Clapping for their work is great, Supporting their Mental Health and Prioritising their wellbeing is even greater.
Written by: Yash Mehrotra
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