Coronavirus Shone a Light on Health Workers' Mental Health, but Their Struggles Aren't New
During the COVID-19 pandemic, there's one thing I've heard over and over again. Besides "stay home" and "wear a mask," which are both very important, there's been a lot of talk about the incredible jobs frontline health workers have been doing, day in, and day out. While it felt like the world was crumbling, it was the health workers who suited up every morning, facing situations that most of us could never even imagine.
The conversation about the amazing work they do shouldn't end when the news moves on.
But there's something that I think is important for us all to remember. Caring for sick people is their job, it's always been their job, and it will continue to be their job when the pandemic is over. That's not to discount the work they're doing right now — in fact, it's the opposite. It's my belief that the coronavirus has shone a long, overdue light on what frontline healthcare workers deal with during every single shift — and the conversation about the amazing work they do shouldn't end when the news moves on.
Until four years ago, I was a frontline health worker (a radiographer and mammogram technician, to be precise) and I'm not too proud to admit that it was bad for my mental health. In the past year, I've realised the full extent how my five years working in hospitals shaped my thoughts and anxieties, even today. People who work in health know too much about the realities of life and death. When you interact with patients whose headaches turn out to be tumours, and a sore back is actually cancer, suddenly every time you overdo it in the gym or pull your back out is an opportunity to face your own mortality. Not all health workers think like this — at least, I hope they don't — but I did. I still do, actually. Just this week, I explained to a plastic surgeon why I no longer work in health, to which he said, "I totally understand — it really sneaks up on you until, one day, you realise how much this industry has affected you."
"It's really important to recognise the cumulative impact of being exposed to illness, to death, to tragedy, to loss."
There are names for those feelings: post traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) and vicarious trauma. Sarah Jones, head of psychological wellbeing at Help for Heroes (an organisation that supports veterans and, more recently, provided online resources for NHS workers), told me that it's normal — and, in many cases, expected — for health professionals to experience one or both of these conditions at some point in their career. She explained that PTSD is caused by an experience that is "significantly traumatic to an individual that creates stress response, which induces a sense of fear of their own safety, or the safety of their loved ones or other people around them." Vicarious trauma (also known as secondary trauma) is similar, and is when "being witness to somebody else's trauma is traumatic in and of itself . . . and that's not limited to the doctors and nurses working directly with patients, but can relate to a whole spectrum of people working within the healthcare centre at the moment."
Dr Elena Touroni, a consultant psychologist and cofounder of The Chelsea Psychology Clinic, explained that it's very common for healthcare workers to think they don't require help, which is something I can personally relate to. "They might feel more comfortable seeing themselves in the position of the caretaker rather than the one on the receiving end of support," she said. "I would encourage them to be aware of their emotional needs and pay attention to any clues that might suggest they need support, for example, sleeping difficulties, increased irritability, disturbances in appetite, and using unhealthy coping behaviours like alcohol and drugs."
"It's really important to recognise the cumulative impact of being exposed to illness, to death, to tragedy, to loss," said Jones, echoing the same sentiment. A "great believer in post-traumatic growth," Jones added that a societal shift needs to happen to completely destigmatise mental health struggles. "We should be able to speak about depression, anxiety, worries, and concerns in the same way we can speak about having a headache or a sniffle."
When the pandemic hit in March, all I could think about was how grateful I was to not work in a hospital anymore (and yes, I felt guilty about that). I won't pretend to know what the people working in the thick of it are experiencing, but I can say with certainty that if it were me, it would have affected me for years after. It might have broken me. The stress of being a health worker didn't start with the pandemic, but the pandemic definitely shone a harsh and unavoidable light on what these professionals deal with every single day — because they are daily, and they don't stop with a pandemic.
They didn't sign up to work in an often underfunded (and therefore, unsafe) environment, where politicians clap for carers on a Thursday night and defund student nurses on Friday morning.
So, when rainbows appeared in windows and signs went up around the city thanking frontline health workers and hailing them as heroes, I thought "finally." Finally they're getting an inch of the respect they deserve. I felt compassion for the people who, yes, signed up for the jobs they do, but also, never signed up for this. They didn't sign up to work in an often underfunded (and therefore, unsafe) environment, where politicians clap for carers on a Thursday night and defund student nurses on Friday morning. What they did ask for are the things that seem hardest for those in power to deliver: adequate personal protective equipment (PPE), appropriate pay, and for the public to stay at home.
Health workers have, without a doubt, had one of the hardest jobs during the past few months, particularly in the early days, when PPE and testing were extremely limited. I was curious to know how working on the frontline of a pandemic has affected them — and how working in health has always affected them — both positively and negatively. Of the people I spoke to, I was pleasantly surprised to hear that many had, overall, positive feelings toward their occupations. Ahead, you'll read interviews with six health workers who prove there's still a lot of work to do in protecting healthcare workers from the emotional toll their jobs can take.