How COVID-19 Has Revealed Cracks in the Mental Health Support System for Healthcare Workers

March 19, 2021
Aron Tendler, M.D., CBSM
Aron Tendler, M.D., CBSM

Managers can help by removing any stigma against seeking help and providing access to support groups and professional services.

Healthcare workers have been at the frontlines since the pandemic began, and sadly, more than 2,900 lost their lives to COVID-19 in 2020 alone. As the nation spiraled into a mental health crisis due to the pandemic, 1 in 5 healthcare workers reported experiencing depression, anxiety and post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). Much of the uptick in these symptoms can be attributed to combating the virus both on a professional and personal level.

While healthcare leadership cannot change the reliance that patients have on healthcare workers, there is an opportunity to take action to provide tools that can help support best practices around mental health. These steps include distributing and promoting educational resources, enabling support groups, and pulling in professionals in the mental health arena.

New stressors stemming from COVID-19

Mental health has long been a concern for those in the healthcare profession, due to long hours, stressful calls, and rigorous documentation requirements. The pandemic has certainly raised the stakes. Many workers lost their jobs due to practice closures as elective procedures rapidly declined, impacting revenue. In an effort to salvage practices, telemedicine options were rapidly deployed. However, many practices were unable to have the desired time to onboard or troubleshoot potential hiccups–offering limited guidance for best practices overall.

Beyond the office doors, workers also wrestled with the learning curves of remote work, homeschooling kids while managing workloads, and a complete deviation from daily routines. There is also the looming concern virtually every day around the safety and wellbeing of loved ones, should they bring the virus home. Furthermore, those who have lost loved ones to the virus over the past year have not truly had the opportunity to grieve.

These circumstances, coupled with increased isolation, have led to dangerous ways of coping, including substance abuse and obesity. These have dramatically impacted both physical health and mental wellbeing. Mental health can also play a vital role in delivering positive patient outcomes and quality care, with one study reporting workers who are overworked are more prone to making serious mistakes.

How managers can help through education

A significant change healthcare leaders can implement is making a conscious effort to reduce the long-standing stigma associated with healthcare workers who seek treatment for mental health issues. The regulation of workers with mental health conditions can result in a lack of disclosure and avoidance of treatment, as these workers may feel they will be penalized for openly speaking about issues like depression and anxiety. While many organizations may already have mental health resources in place, they may find that they are underutilized for this very reason.

How managers can help through support groups and professional services

Organizations may consider expanding offerings to include options such as support groups, as studies show that participation for extended periods of time can be effective in treating mental illness. These groups can be virtual or in-person and include an invitation to hear from board-certified psychologists and psychiatrists on an array of topics, including anything that could hinder treatment success. For example, approximately 40% of people who have depression are diagnosed as treatment resistant–meaning a person has tried at least two antidepressant medications, but the treatment proved ineffective in reducing or relieving the symptoms. These workers may not understand why treatment is not bringing relief, and may be unaware that there are noninvasive solutions, such as Deep Transcranial Magnetic Stimulation (Deep TMS). This is just one example of an FDA-cleared option for treatment-resistant depression available today.

While the pandemic has created a multitude of mental health challenges, it has also provided a spotlight on mental health needs like never before. It is up to leadership to look for ways to care for those who spend their lifetime caring for others.

Aron Tendler, M.D., CBSM, is chief medical officer at Brainsway, a medical technology company whose leading product is a deep transcranial magnetic stimulation device.