We’ve connected via zoom and social media but remain more disconnected than ever before. With everything online and virtual, most of us have noticed a toll taken on our mental health. Some people can deal with this; others struggle and may find their symptoms worsening. But one thing that unites us during this is the fact that our struggle is one that the rest of the world shares.
During these periods of isolation, essential workers face a situation that differs from those around them. This means that the effects their struggles have on their mental health are also unique. A study led by Hannah Wright from the University of Utah School of Medicine examined the mental health of emergency personnel and hospital workers in the Rocky Mountain region in the United States.
This study, published in the Journal of Psychiatric Research, assesses 571 participants for mental health problems through a series of surveys and screeners from April 1 to May 7 in 2020. It also assessed the effects of four pandemic-related stressors on those participants’ mental health:
- Direct contact with possibly infected people
- Having contact with potentially infected people or managing those who have had contact with potentially infected people
- Being immunocompromised or having a weak immune system
- Living with someone who is immunocompromised
“What health care workers are experiencing is akin to domestic combat,” Andrew Smith, the study’s corresponding author, told ScienceDaily. “Although the majority of health care professionals and emergency responders aren’t necessarily going to develop PTSD, they are working under severe duress, day after day, with a lot of unknowns. Some will be susceptible to a host of stress-related mental health consequences.
“By studying both resilient and pathological trajectories, we can build a scaffold for constructing evidence-based interventions for both individuals and public health systems.”
The researchers found that 15-30 per cent of the participants scored positive for each of the following disorders: depression, anxiety, insomnia, traumatic stress, and alcohol usage. In total, 56 per cent of the participants were at risk for one of the five disorders.
Immunocompromised participants were more likely to struggle with depression, anxiety and traumatic stress. Participants living with an immunocompromised person had more issues with insomnia and anxiety. Participants in contact with possible infected people, or managing those who were in contact with potentially infected people, were more likely to have problems with alcohol. Managing people in contact with potentially infected patients, or living with an immunocompromised person, was associated with insomnia and anxiety.
Surprisingly there was an inverse relationship between the number of positive Covid-19 cases and anxiety—as cases increase, anxiety decreases.
“As these health care professionals heard about cases elsewhere before Covid-19 was detected in their communities, their anxiety levels likely rose in anticipation of having to confront the disease,” says Smith.
“But when the disease started trickling in where they were, perhaps it grounded them back to their mission and purpose. They saw the need and they were in there fighting and working hard to make a difference with their knowledge and skills, even at risk to themselves.”
Wright and colleagues note that these mental health risks are higher than previous outbreaks, such as SARS, and resemble those in disasters such as 9/11 and Hurricane Katrina.
“This pandemic, as horrific as it is, offers us the opportunity to better understand the extraordinary mental stress and strains that health care providers are dealing with right now,” says Smith. “With that understanding, perhaps we can develop ways to mitigate these problems and help health care workers and emergency responders better cope with these sorts of challenges in the future.”