There is no doubt that while physical health is the focus of this pandemic, other components of health are being significantly affected as well, including mental health. I have been hearing about increasing rates of depression and anxiety during this time, with healthcare workers being highly impacted. A cross-sectional study in China surveying 1257 health care workers in 34 hospitals found that frontline healthcare workers caring directly for patients with COVID-19 reported significantly higher levels of severe mental health symptoms than second-line workers (Lai et al. 2020). Such symptoms included depression, anxiety, insomnia, and distress. Similarly, a survey conducted in Toronto hospitals in 2003 found that psychological stress in response to the 2003 SARS outbreak was greater in nurses and healthcare workers caring for patients with severe acute respiratory syndrome compared to workers who did not (Maunder et al. 2004). The psychological impact of SARS on survivors and healthcare workers taught us that there may be unique aspects of the stress of infectious disease that distinguish it from other catastrophes. Social isolation in attempts to contain a new pathogen encompasses numerous forces contributing to emotional distress: physical distancing from friends and family, fear surrounding quarantine, stigmatization associated with exposure, and fearing not only for your own safety but for the safety of your loved ones. Research demonstrates that these unique aspects seem to affect SARS survivors and healthcare workers more than the general population who do not directly come into contact with ill patients. Screening and monitoring mental health outcomes of health care workers should begin now, to reduce the risk of long-term psychological effects. Support should be offered and readily available, and may include telemedicine, support groups, online forums, and video chats.
Lai J, Ma S, Wang Y, et al. Factors Associated With Mental Health Outcomes Among Health Care Workers Exposed to Coronavirus Disease 2019. JAMA Netw Open. 2020;3(3):e203976. Published 2020 Mar 2.
Maunder, RG. et al. Factors Associated With the Psychological Impact of Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome on Nurses and Other Hospital Workers in Toronto. Psychosomatic Medicine 2004; 66(6):938-942.