Prakriti Poddar, Expert in Mental Health, Director Poddar Wellness Ltd, MD – Poddar Foundation

NEW DELHI,20.07.20-The importance of healthcare professionals has increased manifold as it is the healthcare professionals who are at the forefront of the battle humanity is waging against coronavirus throughout the world. Coronavirus has affected 208 countries and territories in the world with over 1, 284,805 cases and 70,328 deaths. It has also infected thousands of healthcare workers across the world and in some cases their families as well.

Understandably, the virus has unleashed an unprecedented level of psychological trauma on both healthcare providers and patients. While the physical ramifications of diseases often get the attention they deserve, their mental and psychological effects often fail to get notice. As they work night and day to save lives with a constant fear of the disease and their families healthcare workers are facing unprecedented mental stress. It is important therefore to be highly empathetic and provide all support we can for their mental and psychological well-being.

Healthcare workers at a high risk

A Lancet study on March 21 reported that figures from China’s National Health Commission showed that more than 3,300 healthcare providers had been infected as of early March. Another study published in the Journal of American Medical Association found that 41 per cent of the 138 Covid-19 cases examined were person to person hospital associated transmission.

In Spain 15,000 healthcare workers were reported to be sick or self-isolating making up 14% of the confirmed cases in that country. In India, over 50 doctors and healthcare workers have already tested positive for coronavirus. This highlights their vulnerability as well as the possibility of hospitals becoming hot spots for the virus.

Lack of protective equipment compounds the psychological trauma

Many hospitals in regions where the number of coronavirus infected patients are high have reached full capacity. This has forced the governments of countries like USA, Italy and Spain among others to convert stadiums as well as other large public places to act as makeshift hospitals and quarantine facilities.

It is not just bed and ventilators that are short. The shortage of essential medical supplies like testing kits and protective equipment like specialized masks, gloves and impermeable overalls is acute. In face of shortage of PPE’s , doctors have been forced to reuse protective overalls and use improvised masks like those made out of plastic screens as well as pieces of cloth. This shortage of crucial protective gear further adds to their mental agony and stress, making them highly vulnerable to the infection.

Ensuring Mental Health of healthcare workers is critical during this epidemic

To many people healthcare workers look strong and resilient while treating patients but most don’t know that this calm surface is the only shield they have left against the anxiety and fear that coronavirus has instilled in them with many healthcare professionals afraid that they themselves will get sick especially when the virus is asymptomatic and can potentially infect others includinghealthy patients and their family members.

To lower this risk many healthcare workers have decided to socially isolate themselves from their at risk family members which has reduced their amount of social support. Healthcare workers are also concerned they might die from Covid-19 which is entirely possible with many deaths in China, Italy and USA.

The choice of protecting themselves or their family is not the only choice they have to make as they take calls on life and death decisions due to limited resources. This has led to a feeling of betrayal as they feelthey are being coerced into doing something that compromises their mental health by their employers, the healthcare system and the government all of whom were terribly unprepared for a pandemic and chose to ignore all the warnings too.

With predicted symptoms like acute stress disorder, depression, insomnia and alcohol abuse experts need to intervene to protect the mental health of our healthcare workers. Some healthcare workers get in bad mental health because they have no one to talk to about their thoughts and feelings as they enter self-isolation to protect their loved ones which is where support groups can help. Apart from providing an outlet for feelings support groups comprised of people with shared experiences like fellow healthcare professionals provide insights and emotional support that family members and friends cannot as they have not been subjected to the same ground realities.

Mental health professionals can help with comprehensive and multi-faceted approaches that range from helping health care workers practice mindfulness such as meditation between shifts to refocus their mind on doing the task at hand and crisis support for those who are trying to emerge from a traumatic episode. Other than this healthcare workers may personally try to manage their stress by using helpful coping strategies such as ensuring sufficient rest after shifts, eating healthy, engaging in some form of physical activity as well as staying in touch with family members and friends emerge from this pandemic.