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As COVID-19 cases rise, a mental health epidemic among frontline healthcare workers may be growing as well

Posted at 1:05 PM, Jul 07, 2020
and last updated 2020-07-07 13:05:01-04

For frontline healthcare workers battling COVID-19, the hospital can feel like a war room. Patients are in need of quick help. Some face life-threatening symptoms that need immediate care. Some cannot be saved.

They are split-second decisions that have to be made as more patients funnel into hospital beds, and the effects can weight heavily on those tasking with making them.

“The mental health symptoms tend to peak about 12 months after the actual event,” said Dr. Chris Thurstone, director of behavioral health at Denver’s largest hospital, Denver Health.

In January, a few months before the pandemic hit, Denver Health implemented a program developed at Johns Hopkins called Resilience in Stressful Events (RISE) to help its employees deal with burnout symptoms, unknown to the influx that was to come.

In the first few weeks of the program, the hospital’s drop-in center saw around 30 hospital employees a day. Now, months into the pandemic the same drop-in center is seeing more than 300 hospital employees a day.

“[Frontline healthcare workers] describe it as this different of burnout than they’ve felt before,” said Dr. Thurstone.

“We’re certainly seeing increased rates of people who are struggling and having a difficult time,” added clinical psychologist Dr. Thom Dunn.

It is an unprecedented challenge among doctors, nurses, and other hospital staff that is not only being felt in the United States but globally.

Researches in Wuhan found 30 to 50 percent of healthcare providers were in a burnout stage before COVID-19. Now, that number is up to 75 percent of healthcare providers.

“Depression, anxiety, insomnia, substance use: those are the four things we watch out for,” said Dr. Thurstone. “As things start to settle down and people actually get a chance to breathe and think and be themselves again, they might notice that they’re not completely themselves.”

The RISE program offers counseling and an area for frontline workers to take a load off, through board games and other activities that could help ameliorate the stressors they are experiencing elsewhere in the hospital.

At Denver Health, calls into RISE have increased tenfold as well, proving that once COVID-19 becomes manageable, another epidemic may soon start to emerge.

“We can’t just get through COVID and then pretend nothing happened,” said Dr. Thurstone. “This is placing a stress and strain on every human being, and healthcare workers are human beings and no exception.”

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