OPINION: Medical staff fighting COVID-19 need mental health support

Apr 13, 2020 | News, OP-ED

Anum Qasir, News Reporter

The definition of a routine shift at the GTA long-term facility I work as a frontline nurse in the fight against this pandemic has changed. It now includes bruising our noses and ears from N95 masks and cuts to our hands from repeated sanitizing.

Shifts now include being bombarded with continual updates about COVID-19 in a field where we’re already overwhelmed by new regulations and requirements for added documentation. 

It involves being scared, exhausted and feeling guilty.

We’re fighting to protect our elders from the outside world. We’re fighting against depression and confusion caused by dementia and Alzheimer’s. We’re fighting the frustration of family members not being able to visit and being disconnected from loved ones. 

We’re the ones calming patients who are genuinely fearful of what this virus can do to them and the ones watching when positive tests do come back. We continue to show up for the world.

We’re trying to ensure patients don’t suffer what may come alone.

Being an essential healthcare worker while also enrolled in Humber College’s journalism program gives me a broader perspective of this global pandemic. We’re dealing with a wide range of emotions. The smell of fear is potent and rusted into the walls at work from the moment I set my feet into the Greater Toronto Area facility. 

Humber College journalism student Anum Qasir, who is also a frontline nurse in the fight against COVID-19 in the Greater Toronto Area, says medical staff could face burn out by the stress.

This new routine begins on arrival to work, where the next shift waits two metres apart from others while on-duty staff records body temperatures and distributes personal protective gear, including masks and helmet shields, worn on shifts ranging from eight to 16 hours.

It feels like a scene from a war movie, except it is real life with real super-heroes on the front-lines — doctors, technicians, cleaning staff, nurses, and support staff of all kinds — as cases of the coronavirus continue to spread. 

This could translate into a heightened risk of psychological distress and other mental health problems for healthcare workers

Medical researchers found in a recent study that front line medical workers were three times more likely to experience Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) than others not involved in the struggle. The researchers looked at the mental health of nearly 1,300 healthcare workers who dealt with COVID-19 patients at 34 Chinese hospitals, including symptoms of depression, anxiety, insomnia, and distress.

Working overtime with the constant panic of “What’s next?” affects for our mental health because “panic” or not, nurses are the ones showing up to work despite their anxiety, they’re among those who sweat through their shifts in their Personal Protective Equipment, the ones risking exposure while caring for anyone experiencing complications. 

“We get told to keep out of danger our whole lives, but when healthcare workers risk their own lives to save someone else, it’s considered a virtuous act of kindness,” said a nurse colleague who doesn’t want to be identified.

She said it’s the hardest thing she’s ever had to do.

We find ourselves in a situation where we feel guilty about returning to our families, risking bringing the enemy into our homes, but leave our homes whole-heartedly to take on the responsibilities for the well being of our vulnerable patients.

We continue to show up for the world.

“We’re being forced to change how we work by pushing boundaries of what critical care is to meet the demands while compromising our safety,” said Sara Abudowleh, a fellow nurse. 

Too often, health care professionals suffer in silence together. 

However, to staunch the flow of nurses from the profession, I feel the government and nursing schools must put more emphasis on burnout prevention. Most importantly, we must acknowledge the burdens we bear and the emotional and physical tolls we take as that might just be adding to the crisis.