Last week, two frontline healthcare workers – emergency physician Dr. Lorna Breen and emergency medical technician John Mondello, took their lives. Before the tragedies, both of them were serving in New York, the epicenter of the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic.

Trauma, uncertainty and moral injury

Medical professionals are trained to heal others but not themselves. It has been found that the number of healthcare workers who lost their lives while saving others in this coronavirus sage are probably more than what the official record said. Now, the two suicides suggest we may be entering yet another discouraging chapter – a COVID-19 mental health crisis.

The medical workforce has been at risks of burnout long before the pandemic kicks in. With severe protective equipment shortage, they are living in the fear of catching and spreading coronavirus. As of April, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) reported the virus had infected over 9000 healthcare workers and 27 of them had perished.

An overwhelming number of patients requiring critical care in the absent of sufficient ventilators means doctors will be told who to save when options run dry. Something which goes against the conscience of all medically-trained since they are not educated in the practice of choosing patients. At the same time, some medical staff are warned not to openly speak about severity of the pandemic as hospitals are concerned about misinformation and patient privacy.

The pandemic believed will not subside until a vaccine is found or if aggressive strategies are employed to contain the virus, like the way SARS outbreak had been. Otherwise, we may have to learn to live with the disease. Meanwhile, healthcare facilities will continue to shoulder most of the pressure coming from the pandemic. The prolonged uncertainty and helplessness not only leave behind trauma but also moral scars.

Another curve to flatten

As resources are still pouring to control the pandemic, it’s unsure how serious or complex the mental health toll that comes with it will turn out to be. Indeed, healthcare workers need to be rational all the time and put their mental resources on the patient, so they learn to “shut down feeling and just keep going” over time.

Besides, mental recovery is an abstract state of art. The pandemic will eventually come to an end but healthcare providers won’t stop giving care, so it’s challenging to measure whether they will learn to resolve the emotional toll and shows signs of improvement or are they, again, using their rationality to suppress how they truly feel?

Some believe mental trauma is not exclusive to healthcare workers, in fact, people who become sick and those who already have existing mental health conditions are also a risk. Earlier, AIMed reported on the steps taken by the US and UK governments to tackle the mental wellbeing aspect of the pandemic. We also highlighted several types of digital mental health support that are available. As the number of patients gradually decreases and lockdown measures are lifted. The prevention of new mental disorder cases and increasing the capacity of present mental healthcare system will be the new curve that needs to be flatten.


Author Bio

Hazel Tang A science writer with data background and an interest in the current affair, culture, and arts; a no-med from an (almost) all-med family. Follow on Twitter.