Given the current COVID-19 health crisis, every U.S. community depends on the mental health of its frontline healthcare workers, including emergency and hospital personnel, doctors and nurses. According to a new study, those regularly facing pandemic-related stressors are at greater risk for mental health problems.
The research, which was published in the November 2020 online issue of Journal of Psychiatric Research, was conducted by scientists from the University of Utah Health Occupational Trauma program, in conjunction with medical researchers from four other medical institutions. They found the daily toll of dealing with the COVID-19 pandemic has given rise to an alarming percentage of healthcare worker casualties. In fact, over half the study’s participants experienced one or more of the following mental health problems: acute traumatic stress, depression, anxiety, alcohol abuse or insomnia.
The study indicates that the risk of these mental health conditions was elevated above the rates observed during previous viral outbreaks (e.g., SARS) and comparable to rates associated with disasters such as 9/11 and Hurricane Katrina.
Andrew J. Smith, Ph.D., director of the University of Utah’s Health Occupational Trauma Program at the Huntsman Mental Health Institute and the study’s co-author states, “What healthcare workers are experiencing is akin to domestic combat. Although the majority of healthcare professionals and emergency responders aren’t necessarily going to develop PTSD, they are working under severe duress, day after day, with a lot of unknowns. Some will be susceptible to a host of stress-related mental health consequences. By studying both resilient and pathological trajectories, we can build a scaffold for constructing evidence-based interventions for both individuals and public health systems.”
Of the healthcare workers and emergency responders who participated in the study, 56% of the respondents screened positive for at least one mental health disorder. The prevalence for each specific disorder ranged from 15% to 30% of the study’s participants, with problematic alcohol use, insomnia and depression topping the list.
The study’s findings indicate alcohol abuse is a primary area of concern. Over one third (36%) of healthcare workers reported risky alcohol usage. And caregivers who provided direct patient care or who were in supervisory positions were at even greater risk. The researchers say offering these workers preventative education and alcohol abuse treatment is vital.
The study’s authors are moving ahead and are in the final stages of a similar, but larger study conducted in late 2020 that they hope will build on these findings.
One positive takeaway proposed by Dr. Smith paves the way—in the area of assisting frontline healthcare workers to deal with alcohol use disorders—for addiction treatment professionals to bring their expertise forward to help afflicted doctors, nurses and emergency responders find recovery and freedom from the terrible consequences of alcohol abuse. “This pandemic, as horrific as it is, offers us the opportunity to better understand the extraordinary mental stress and strains that healthcare providers are dealing with right now. With that understanding, perhaps we can develop ways to mitigate these problems and help healthcare workers and emergency responders better cope with these sorts of challenges in the future.”
If you or someone you know in the healthcare field is struggling with alcohol or substance abuse issues, help is available at local addiction treatment centers, which can be easily found on the internet or in the phone book.
 Wright, Hannah M. “Pandemic-related mental health risk among front line personnel.” Journal of Psychiatric Research. 11/4/20. DOI: 10.1016/j.jpsychires.2020.10.045