Op-Ed: Make Mental Health a Priority for Health Care Workers

Douglas Placa

The general public may be able to see the light at the end of the COVID-19 tunnel as more businesses open and life kick-starts around the state, but the future is a bit murkier for frontline health care workers.

For nurses and other health care workers, the stress, anxiety, frustration and fears of the pandemic are ongoing, and something needs to be done to protect their mental health and well-being. Health care workers are already experiencing high rates of burnout and depression, and some have been so negatively impacted they have chosen to leave the profession.

In China, a survey of 1,257 physicians and nurses found that during the height of the pandemic 50% of respondents reported symptoms of depression, 44% reported symptoms of anxiety and 34% reported insomnia.

In Italy, a survey of 1,379 health care workers found that nearly half of those who treated COVID-19 patients experienced symptoms of post-traumatic distress. In an interview with UPI, study co-author professor Randolfo Rossi of the University of Rome blamed workplace conditions for causing much of the stress: “Health workers are experiencing mental health issues because the pandemic as a whole has seriously challenged the Italian healthcare system, which in turn has not been able to provide a ‘mentally safe’ working environment for health workers.”

Post-traumatic stress disorder

A Guardian article quoted PTSD researcher professor Meredith Mealer from the University of Colorado as stating: “I would anticipate we start to see nurses and physicians who have PTSD as a result of this up closer to 40% – 50%.”

With declining hospitalizations and deaths being reported, it is easy to think that stress levels will subside. However, that is not the reality for many health care professionals struggling to cope with the overriding uncertainty and fear on a daily basis.

The New Jersey Assembly Health Committee recently heard testimony on this issue. JNESO explained how more than 200 of our members have contracted COVID-19 and that sadly five of our members have died. Daily, we receive texts and calls describing the frustrations, fears and incredible stress and responsibility our nurses endure caring for their patients, themselves and their families.

Despite media reports, the shortage of personal protective equipment is very real. In fact, some employers are already pulling back on providing the equipment needed to keep nurses safe and prevent the spread of the disease in their facilities.

The issue of mental health has in and of itself become collateral damage in this crisis, and JNESO gave the following recommendations to the committee to help our health care heroes get the help they need:

  1. Provide free mental health services that are available and discreet for each staff member. Those who seek help should not have it used against them regarding their employment.
  2. Clearly communicate emergency plans — such as pandemic or natural disaster crises — with clearly laid out expectations and directions for staff. The plan should address staffing expertise in clinical areas. In the case of an infectious disease emergency, be sure there is enough protective equipment for all staff.
  3. Allow staff to take time away from the job to de-stress without fear of retaliation from employers. This would be in addition to the provisions provided under FMLA, or contractual leaves of absence.

We need guidance from the state. We need attention focused on smart funding and initiatives to improve mental health and well-being. We need employers to step up to the plate to recognize their role in reducing stress and anxiety on the job and proactively support opportunities for health care professionals to seek the mental health services they desperately need to heal.

Now it is time to shine a light on the importance of the mental health and well-being of all health care professionals. Without these heroes, we have no hope for surviving another crisis.