It’s no secret that clinicians and healthcare professionals continue to struggle while providing care for some of the most vulnerable people in our communities.
Every year, Brain Awareness Week is observed around the world during the third week of March. From the first celebration in 1996, thousands of organizations use this time to promote brain science education and awareness.
What strikes me on this occasion, more than two years into the COVID-19 pandemic, is the mental health status of healthcare providers and staff, and the continued impact on their daily lives.
The National Institute for Occupational Health and Safety (NIOSH) found that the COVID-19 pandemic introduced additional elements of fatigue, stress, loss, and grief for healthcare workers. More than 20 percent of nurses reported potentially leaving their positions while 64 percent of female physicians reported burnout.1
Physicians and nurses are worn out and their employers are trying to support them in the best ways that they can. Given my background as a family medicine physician, I recognize the remarkable times that we are in and how we all need to do more to support healthcare workers and to raise awareness about mental health struggles.
Pandemic triggers “massive” increase in anxiety, depression
On March 2, the World Health Organization (WHO) released a scientific brief on the global prevalence of anxiety and depression in the first year of the COVID-19 pandemic. Officials found a massive 25 percent increase in these conditions around the world.
WHO Director-General Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus described the findings as the tip of the iceberg. “This is a wake-up call to all countries to pay more attention to mental health and do a better job of supporting their populations’ mental health,” he said in a news release.
In the United States, researchers have found that the percentage of adults with symptoms of anxiety and depressive disorders increased nationwide from August 2020 to February 2021.
In a study published in October 2021 in Morbidity and Mortality Weekly Reportscientists reported that nationwide, average anxiety severity scores increased 13 percent from August to December 2020, and then decreased 26.8 percent from December 2020 to June 2021. The increased frequency of reported symptoms of anxiety and depression shows that mental health services and resources, including telehealth, are critical during the COVID-19 pandemic, particularly among populations disproportionately affected by COVID-19.
How we can help others
Groups including the National Academy of Medicine, American Medical Association, Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration (SAMHSA), and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) are among the nation’s leaders providing support for healthcare workers and clinicians.
In January 2022, the National Academy of Medicine launched a collection of tools for healthcare worker well-being, including ways to enhance workplace efficiency, strengthen leadership behavior and cultivate a culture of connection and support.2 This project is supported by the American Hospital Association.3
SAMHSA also offers advice for healthcare professionals to cope with stress and compassion fatigue. The agency recommends that healthcare workers be physically active several days a week, strive to sleep and eat well and try to avoid increasing the use of alcohol and other drugs.
The CDC recommends talking openly with healthcare workers about how the pandemic is affecting their life, and encouraging them to accept that some things are out of their control.
If you are a nurse or have one in your life, the American Nurses Association has a well-being initiative that includes resources to help with self-care and sleeping. As part of the initiative, you can take an anonymous test to gauge your stress level or try an app that helps prioritize and track sleep, nutrition, and exercise.
Stigma still exists, but treatment options are plentiful
Stigma has yet to be erased from both brain illness and mental health conditions. If you have a painful knee, you go to the orthopedist. No one thinks twice about visiting a cardiologist or an ophthalmologist if they have heart or eye irregularities. Yet, we often hesitate to seek help for a concerning mental condition.
Not only during Brain Awareness Week, but all year long, let each of us commit to keeping an eye on our friends and family working with healthcare. And remember, it’s also an opportunity for you to assess and take good care of yourselves, too.
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