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COVID-19 Health Care Workers at High Risk for Mental Health Issues

Frontline workers are a critical aspect to a community's ability to manage crises and disasters.

A recent study investigating the mental health of frontline health care workers has found that more than half of doctors, nurses and emergency responders that are involved in the care of the coronavirus disease 2019 (COVID-19) are potentially at risk for one or more problems like depression, insomnia, anxiety and acute traumatic stress. Findings suggested that the rates of mental health conditions were comparable to rates that have been observed after natural disasters.

The study was conducted by investigators from the University of Utah Health, in collaboration with the University of Arkansas for Medical Sciences; University of Colorado, Colorado Springs; Central Arkansas VA Health Care System; Salt Lake City VA Healthcare System; as well as the National Institute for Human Resilience and was published in the Journal of Psychiatric Research.

"What health care workers are experiencing is akin to domestic combat," Andrew J. Smith, a corresponding author on the study said. "Although the majority of health care 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."

Investigators collected surveys from 571 health care workers, which included 473 emergency responders and 98 hospital staff. The findings showed that 56% of the participants screened positive for one or more mental health disorders, with the prevalence of each ranging from 15% to 30%.

At the top of the list was insomnia, depression and problematic alcohol use. 36% of the health care workers reported risky alcohol use, with those in direct patient care or supervisory positions at the greatest risk. The authors suggested that offering preventative education on alcohol abuse treatment was a vital aspect needing implementation.

"This pandemic, as horrific as it is, offers us the opportunity to better understand the extraordinary mental stress and strains that health care providers are dealing with right now," Smith said. "With that understanding, perhaps we can develop ways to mitigate these problems and help health care workers and emergency responders better cope with these sorts of challenges in the future."