Mental health needs of healthcare workers during COVID-19

During the COVID-19 pandemic, the mental health needs of healthcare workers should not be overlooked. 

We talked with several experts on Facebook Live about the resources available to healthcare workers and how we can all help support them.

The experts included Dr. Christian Thurstone the Director of Behavioral Health at Denver Health, Dr. Renee Marquardt the Chief Medical Officer for the Colorado Department of Human Services and a Board-Certified Psychiatrist, Dr. Kim Nordstrom the Medical Director at Colorado Access and an Emergency Psychiatrist at the University of Colorado Anschutz Medical Campus, and 9Health Expert Dr. Payal Kohli.

There are several unique stressors that healthcare workers face normally and even more so during the COVID-19 crisis.

As an emergency psychiatrist at CU Anschutz, Dr. Nordstrom said those stressors are causing a lot of uncertainty and angst right now, “Under normal circumstances, we understand that our health can be sacrificed. What makes this particular infection tricky is learning we are infectious before we may have symptoms. It’s one thing to sacrifice yourself, it’s another when you might bring it home to your spouse, to your children.”

Another stressor the experts referred to was called moral injury. For healthcare workers, it happens when trying their best just isn’t enough, “When death is happening again and again and your best efforts don’t seem to be helping it can have a significant negative impact and very much affects the frontline worker,” Nordstrom added.

“For humans’ uncertainty is one of the biggest stressors. All the uncertainty is just really stressful for everyone,” said Dr. Marquardt.

Add that uncertainty to overwhelming circumstances, protocols changing, and limited supplies, and it can cause a lot of stress for healthcare workers.

Dr. Thurstone said additional stressors include isolation from family, and also discrimination, “Someone finds out you’re a healthcare worker and doesn’t want to have anything to do with you because you may have had contact with somebody with COVID.”

For healthcare workers, it can be difficult for them to admit they need help. Friends and family need to be on the lookout for signs of burnout. Those include:

  • Extra exhaustion
  • Feelings of numbness
  • Irritability
  • Difficulty sleeping

With COVID-19 healthcare workers need to prepare themselves for the long haul with the. “It’s hard to predict when this will all be over,” Dr. Kohli said. “We have to pace ourselves mentally and physically according to a timeline that could last several more months,” she added.

Long hours, PPE head to toe, worrying about infecting your family, layer on uncertainty. “All of these factors culminate to provide a big sense of fear and create lasting psychological effects,” Kohli explained.

Kohli also said we need to not only be concerned about flattening the curve when it comes to the spread of COVID-19 but also flattening the curve when it comes to our mental health and acknowledging the needs of healthcare workers.

The experts all agreed we are entering a sort of “perfect mental health storm” with around 23% of Coloradans in a major depressive episode, the baseline is normally around 7%, liquor sales are up, gun sales are up, funding for mental health programs is being reduced Thurstone explained.

One thing that is helpful during this pandemic, or any crisis, is the “pulling together effect”, explained Thurstone. When communities come together, volunteer, donate and support each other. Those are all things that can be protective against mental distress.

In terms of what to do about things, Thurstone gave a great analogy and a different way to think about COVID-19 when it comes to mental health. Thinking of the COVID acronym as a way to help you or someone you know:

Compassion – Having compassion for ourselves and others

Open – Share your thoughts and feelings and be open and honest about how you feel

Value – Staying connected to who and what is important to you

Inclusion – Include your friends and family, camaraderie is extremely protective against burnout and psychological distress

Disinfect – Think of it in the expanded, non-literal sense as a reminder of self-care

“It’s OK to not be OK, especially right now,” Thurstone added.

If you feel you or a loved one needs to talk to someone, contact Colorado Crisis Services by calling 1-844-493-8255 or texting “TALK” to 38255 for free, confidential, 24/7 support. 

9Health offers free, anonymous, online mental health screenings for adults. Click here to be screened for anxiety and depression.

If you have a health question you can talk to a medical professional through our 9Health Neighbors Program by calling 303-698-4455, ext. 2005. Leave a message and a 9Health Medical Volunteer will call you back within 24 hours.

May is Mental Health Awareness Month and all month we are working with the Colorado Department of Human Services, Office of Behavioral Health, to host Facebook Live segments and connect you to mental health experts. Watch live on Facebook every Tuesday and Thursday at 11:00 a.m. in May and come ask your questions.

Find all the segments we did for Mental Health Awareness Month on our blog or in our 9Health Video Gallery under mental health.