Public health department workers are among the many people who have endured a heavy burden throughout the COVID-19 pandemic.
A new report from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention has provided further insight into the extent of the pandemic’s emotional toll on those working in public health departments across the U.S.
The study revealed that 53% of the nation’s public health workers have experienced some kind of mental health condition in the past two weeks. Those surveyed reported experiencing depression (32%), anxiety (30%), post-traumatic stress disorder (36%) and even suicidal ideations (8.4%).
These workers are responsible for providing resources, tracking statistics and developing policies. So, even though these employees are not losing patients to COVID-19 like hospital doctors and nurses, they have equally felt the weight of the pandemic.
This is the progression of a trend that has impacted frontline health care workers since last summer.
In January, the University of Utah Health estimated that half of front line health care workers were at risk for one or more mental health problems. Researchers discovered that the current rate of mental health conditions among health care workers was similar to that experienced following 9/11 and Hurricane Katrina.
More recently, the Kaiser Family Foundation (KFF) released a study revealing that 80% of health care workers are experiencing significant stress over potentially being exposed to COVID-19. In addition, KFF estimates that 3-in-10 health care workers received, or thought they needed to receive, mental health services as a result of the pandemic.
As the nation enters the fourth wave of the COVID-19 pandemic, we need to continue to focus on the needs of those who have spent over a year in the trenches. These are physicians, nurses, technicians, therapists, environmental services staff, admissions representatives and chaplains.
Many frontline workers have been unable to take time off or have been too exhausted to even spend time with loved ones. They are the same people who come to work day-in and day-out, knowing that the shift will be short-handed again and that they could get exposed to the virus.
These brave souls have had their personal reserves pushed to the limit. For many, it feels like nothing is left.
Worst of all, over 3,607 health care workers have died due to COVID-19 infections. Half of those were physicians and nurses.
As hospitals are filling up again, we need to focus on how to help those who are still fighting on the frontlines. Here are three ways to continue to support our health care heroes:
First, express appreciation.
Early in the pandemic, we witnessed an outpouring of love and respect for health care workers.
Businesses and churches regularly sent lunch to my hospital, for example. We received cards and letters from local elementary schools. The public set up displays outside our facilities, and we saw local businesses step up and donate old protective equipment.
I personally received multiple emails a week from people I did not know telling me they were praying for us.
While many segments of the country have dropped social distancing orders and mask mandates, our hospitals and clinics have not changed. They are still seeing the sick. They are still caring for the suffering at great personal risk.
Therefore, reach out. If you can help them in some tangible way, great, but at least express your appreciation and remember these men and women who are still on the frontlines.
Second, do not add to the problem.
As hospital staff scrambles to accommodate this new surge of COVID-19 patients, do not be one of them.
It is simple economics. Hospitals only have so many beds. The best way to help frontline health care workers is to reduce the number of patients coming into our facilities.
So, that means wear your mask, social distance and please get a vaccine if there is not a medical reason for not doing so. Do not add to the growing problem.
Yet, we need to do more than just avoid the coronavirus. We need to stay healthy and address other medical needs sooner than later to avoid needing to go to the emergency room.
If you are having symptoms of any illness, COVID-19 or otherwise, seek medical advice sooner than later. Do not put off chronic or acute illnesses. Early into the pandemic, we saw countless patients delay trips to outpatient clinics for fear of the coronavirus only to end up in the emergency room.
It is easier to treat illness early. Heart arrhythmias, breathing trouble, stroke-like symptoms and blood sugar issues are nothing to ignore. Seek medical treatment early with your primary care physician.
This will help avoid a lengthy and costly hospital admission. It also helps avoid a hospital admission that would simply add to the flood of patients already swamping our hospitals.
Third, help others stay safe.
The pandemic has raged for over 18 months, and the months of isolation during this period has added to a growing mental health crisis.
Along with COVID-19 cases, we have witnessed skyrocketing levels of anxiety and a spike in mental health ER visits, which further strains overwhelmed hospitals. The Kaiser Family Foundation’s Household Pulse Survey revealed that homes wrestling with mental health issues or substance abuse are four times higher than in 2019.
We need to reach out to family and friends, offering emotional support before a crisis erupts. This is not only the compassionate thing to do but it also helps reduce hospital admissions.
In brief, what can people outside the hospital system do to ease the burden on health care workers?
They can continue to encourage those on the frontline and they can be a part of the solution and not the problem.
Senior Staff Chaplain and Clinical Ethicist at the Baptist Health Medical Center in Little Rock, Arkansas.