While many people are battling COVID-19 by staying at home, healthcare workers are on the frontlines of the pandemic and immersed in daily stressful and traumatic situations.
Because of the essential nature of their role in fighting the novel coronavirus, experts say healthcare workers are now at a much higher risk of experiencing post-traumatic stress disorders.
PTSD is a mental health condition triggered by a “terrifying event,” according to the Mayo Clinic. Symptoms can include flashbacks, nightmares, severe anxiety, and uncontrollable thoughts about the event. The Mayo Clinic says PTSD not only causes significant problems in social or work situations, but it can also interfere with your ability to complete routine daily tasks.
As the number of coronavirus-infected individuals in the U.S. surges past 1.3 million as of mid-May, healthcare workers around the country are working in a prolonged and highly stressful situation. Not only do they have to care for extremely sick individuals, but they also have to be the gatekeepers between COVID-19 patients and their loved ones. In some cases — like in Italy — healthcare workers are responsible for choosing who lives and who dies when there are not enough resources to treat all of their patients.
Meanwhile, they have to worry about their co-workers or themselves getting infected. As of April 9, the virus infected more than 9,000 healthcare workers in the U.S. and killed 27, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
Perhaps the worst part of healthcare workers’ plight is that no one knows when the pandemic will slow down. As conspiracy theories take off online and states continue to open up their economies despite a rise in cases, Dr. Anthony Fauci has warned that the U.S. is “not out of the woods yet.” Healthcare workers have to worry about what will happen if the U.S. is unable to flatten the curve.
Dr. Shubi Mukatira and Leslie Lindsey, experts in treating trauma at the Transformation Center in Memphis, said in an interview with WVLT that they are already noticing a toll on the mental health of healthcare workers.
“We can’t wonder if healthcare providers are going to … experience PTSD,” Lindsey said. “With the influx that we expect, we have to know that’s going to happen.”
Statistics from other countries who were the first to battle COVID-19 reflect this hypothesis. In China, one survey of 1,257 physicians and nurses during the height of the COVID-19 pandemic reported that about 50% had symptoms of depression, 44% had symptoms of anxiety, and 34% experienced insomnia, according to the Scientific American.
Additionally, the Scientific American reported that during the 2003 SARS outbreak—in which just 8,098 people were infected worldwide—89% of healthcare workers at risk of contracting the virus reported adverse psychological effects similar to PTSD.
Healthcare workers and their loved ones should be on the lookout for early PTSD indicators, including depression, irritability, nightmares, and becoming withdrawn from others.