COVID-19 Strain: Healthcare Workers Increasingly Seek Mental Health Help

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  • Researchers analyzed anonymous data from an Ontario database involving 34,000 physicians.
  • They found that 27 percent more doctors sought help for burnout and substance misuse in the first year of the pandemic than in 2019.
  • Findings indicate that psychiatrists showed the highest rate of annual visits at 3,442 visits per 1,000 physicians, while surgeons had the lowest rate, at only 371 per 1,000.

The ongoing COVID-19 pandemic has seen a steep decrease in mental health across different groups, while new research finds doctors are also reaching their limits during the pandemic.

Canadian researchers analyzed anonymous data from an Ontario database involving 34,000 physicians who had 50,000 mental health visits during the first year of the pandemic.

They found that 27 percent more Ontario doctors sought help for burnout and substance misuse in the first year of the pandemic than in 2019.

Some specialties more affected than others

The study published this month in JAMA Network Open also revealed certain specialties had many more mental health visits than others.

Findings indicate that psychiatrists showed the highest rate of annual visits at about 3,442 visits per 1,000 physicians, while surgeons had the lowest rate, at only 371 per 1,000.

“Not all physicians are the same, and some specialties face different pressures and realities. The differences we saw between specialties may be explained by specialty-specific attitudes towards seeking care for mental health,” co-senior study author Dr. Manish Sood, said in a statement.

However, the findings also showed that mental health visits didn’t vary by demographic group or work locations — with no differences by gender, age, or whether they worked in an urban or rural environment.

Pandemic has brought unique challenges to healthcare

Anthony LoGalbo, PhD, associate professor at the Florida Tech School of Psychology, told Healthline that doctors aren’t only struggling with many of the same concerns as the general population — like restricted access to friends and family, concerns about the virus, and information overload.

“Healthcare workers are often dealing with additional stressors related to increased vigilance and sanitary guidelines they must follow to reduce infection risk at work,” he said.

According to LoGalbo, increased stress may cause a variety of symptoms, such as problems sleeping, increased tiredness, rapid heart rate or breathing rate, feeling more easily overwhelmed or anxious, and having trouble concentrating.

“Compassion fatigue and burnout in physicians has been a growing topic of study in recent years,” said Arianna Galligher, a licensed independent social worker supervisor and associate director of the STAR Trauma Recovery Center at The Ohio State University Wexner Medical Center.

Galligher pointed out that one of the most common reasons that doctors and other healthcare professionals are drawn to the field is a desire to help others.

However, she pointed out that even when “everyone does everything right” positive outcomes aren’t guaranteed, and healthcare professionals bear the burden of being present with patients and their families on their worst days.

“The stress that accompanies this vicarious exposure to trauma can result in emotional exhaustion, anxiety, depression, feelings of cynicism, increased errors, increased substance use, relationship problems, and suicidal ideation,” Galligher said.

Virtual care options might explain some of the increase

According to researchers, the expansion of ‘virtual care’ options during the pandemic might play a role in the increased mental health visits they observed.

This could be due to less perceived stigma associated with this type of care compared to traditional, in-person treatment.

“Doctors in particular are hesitant to reach out for mental health services, most commonly citing worry about perceptions and the possibility of future career damage, especially when it comes to affecting their professional licenses,” said Scott A. Gustafson, PhD, professor in the Florida Tech School of Psychology and director of Community Psychological Services.

Gustafson added that although the move to “more robust” telehealth delivery of mental health likely increases availability of services, the mass adoption of online treatment is “so new” that there are no reliable numbers regarding its effectiveness, “especially in comparison to in-person services.”

‘Culture of compassion’ key to supporting healthcare staff

Galligher emphasized that the most impactful strategies to support healthcare professionals use “a multifaceted approach at the system level.”

She said that mental health programs must incorporate preventative strategies to support well-being and responsive strategies that address problems as they arise.

“Promoting a culture of compassion and incorporating trauma-informed care strategies is key to supporting staff,” said Galligher.

She added that interventions including pet therapy, gratitude programs, mindfulness-based stress reduction, peer support, and stigma-free access to counseling are all important elements in offering full-spectrum support across “a continuum of need.”

“Deploying the right resources at the right times can help staff maintain a healthy mental state,” Galligher said.

The bottom line

Canadian researchers have found that doctors required much higher rates of mental health care in the first year of the pandemic, compared to the previous year.

Experts say this could be due to several factors, including exposure to trauma, compassion fatigue, and increased access to virtual care.

They also say that mental health programs for healthcare professionals should combine both preventive and responsive strategies to address issues as they arise.

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