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Doctors Already Face Mental Health Concerns — Coronavirus Isn't Helping

Graphic illustration of of health care workers
elenabs via iStock
Fighting a new, unpredictable virus has made some mental health issues health care providers already face more pronounced.

Health care providers are on the frontlines in the fight against the coronavirus. As they head in to work each day to confront a virus that is both unpredictable and highly contagious, it’s highlighting the need for them to be taken care of as well. 

Doctors and medical care providers have long had a complicated relationship with their own health care, particularly when it comes to mental health, according to Dr. Kyle Jones, a family practice physician in Salt Lake City. 

It’s something he’s struggled with his entire career. 

“We’re supposed to be the doctors — we ride in on the white horse, we save the day,” Jones said. “We’re not supposed to struggle, we’re supposed to have complete dedication to our patients.”

Add to that the inherent stress of taking care of patients, including the fear of making a potentially life-threatening mistake, and he said it all combines to create a perfect storm of depression and anxiety. 

And while the issue is being talked about more now — owed in part to increased awareness around high rates of suicide, burnout and depression among physicians — Jones said it’s an ongoing concern, particularly as health care workers are confronting a new, global disease.

“This is unchartered territory for all of us,” said Megan Call, a psychologist at the University of Utah Health’s Resiliency Center. “And then certainly for medical professionals, they’ve never been here before. So people are having new reactions.” 

Call has been leading COVID-19 debrief sessions for university medical staff to talk about how their work is impacting their mental health. She said she’s hearing from physicians and others who are feeling emotionally exhausted, unable to connect with their patients as they normally would and no longer feeling the work that they do is worthwhile. 

And while doctors in Utah may not be experiencing the same stress levels as their counterparts in states harder hit by the virus, she said they still face anxiety over the predicted onslaught of patients that is “always humming along in the back of their minds.”

“We know that that’s pretty harmful for the individual, especially if it’s chronic,” she said. “That can affect patient care.”

In the debrief sessions, which typically last about an hour and can have around 25 medical professionals, participants share what they’ve been experiencing. She said it not only helps participants feel less isolated, but helps to remove the stigma around seeking help in the first place. 

Similar sessions began about three years ago to address more general mental health concerns, Call said, but when the hospital’s COVID response began, more doctors became interested. She said she’s also seen some groups coming forward — like emergency medicine and urgent care — that don’t typically seek help.

“It’s counterintuitive,” Call said. “We would presume that everything would be substantially worse. But what I’m finding is that people are actually being more vulnerable, asking for help and reaching out to colleagues in a way they haven’t before.”

She said that’s a positive step forward, because if issues go untreated, that’s not just harmful to doctors themselves, but the patients they take care of.

Jon Reed is a reporter for KUER. Follow him on Twitter @reedathonjon

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