Experts worried about the mental health of healthcare workers during COVID-19 pandemic

Right now, people from all walks of life are struggling, from the sick to the unemployed. But there are some carrying an even heavier burden than most, like the doctors and nurses on the frontlines of the fight against the coronavirus pandemic. It’s why some experts are more worried about their mental health than ever before.

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“I need to take care of myself so I can take care of others,” said Jade Flinn, a nurse educator in the biocontainment unit at Johns Hopkins Hospital, but sometimes, that’s easier said than done. Flinn, for instance, is caring for the sickest of the sick, at one point choosing to work for a more than two-week stretch without a single day off.

“Being away from work has been probably the most difficult because I feel that guilt of not being with my team,” Flinn said, but it’s that guilt that’s raising concerns.

Take the story of Lorna Breen, a top New York City emergency room doctor who killed herself last Sunday. Breen’s father told the New York Times she’d described devastating scenes of the toll the coronavirus took on patients, and he added, “she tried to do her job and it killed her.” 

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Dr. Rita Nakashima Brock fears what happened to Breen could be “just the tip of an iceberg.” Brock believes Breen may’ve been struggling with what’s called moral injury, which she describes as what happens to you in a life or death situation when things go terribly wrong and you’re trying to figure out why. She’s worried all healthcare workers may be at risk.

“These are some of the best people in our society, and we can’t afford to lose them, and we can’t afford to keep going with the kind of healthcare we have that is washing so many of them out,” Brock explained.

Flinn said the idea of moral injury makes sense to her, and as it turns out, she’s already doing much of what Brock recommends. She mentioned the RISE team at Hopkins, which is a group of clinicians who support their peers after traumatic events. She also said she leans on family members, who listen and offer support.

“It is okay to say you’re not okay,” she said, adding that she hopes her peers will follow through.