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Addressing Healthcare Worker's Stress and Trauma During the Covid-19 Pandemic

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In a recent video widely published on the internet, Nurse D'neil Schmall poignantly expresses the frustration and pain she and other healthcare workers are experiencing as they care for patients suffering from the Coronavirus. As she struggles to maintain her composure, Schmall poignantly expresses the tremendous stress she and many of her colleagues are experiencing as they provide lifesaving treatment in overwhelmed hospital emergency rooms and ICUs oftentimes under conditions made more difficult and perilous by shortages of critically needed lifesaving and protective equipment (ventilators, masks, gowns, etc.). Her feelings of helplessness and guilt are apparent as she relates having so many of her patients succumb to the virus and then being tasked with the responsibility of informing family members of their loved ones' demise.

Mental Health Implications

In a study published in the Journal of Depression and Anxiety, researchers have found that even during periods of non-pandemic, a significant number of nurses working in hospital emergency rooms and Intensive Care Units, some 22%, experience symptoms of Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) and Burnout Syndrome (BOS). As attested to by Nurse Schmall's video, given the highly stressful and traumatic conditions healthcare workers are experiencing during the current Coronavirus pandemic, this number will most certainly increase dramatically. Also indicated by her testimony is what has recently been recognized as Moral Injury, in this case, feelings of profound guilt and regret at having failed to fulfill her role-specific obligation of saving the lives of her patients.

Typical of caregivers, however, Nurse Schmall is reticent to seek help herself or to confide in family members who, she rightly reasoned, would then become even more apprehensive about her safety and well-being. Nor is she comfortable engaging with and "overburdening" colleagues who are similarly impacted by the experience.

While a five-minute video is certainly not a valid basis upon which to render a diagnosis, it does provide cautionary insight that PTSD, BOS, and Moral Injury intervention may certainly be indicated in cases of many healthcare workers during this current pandemic. Following the inclination of many politicians and members of the media to liken this pandemic to a war, we must ensure that all "front line" healthcare workers, for that matter all "essential workers," are screened, and if warranted treated, not only for the coronavirus, but for psychological, emotional, and moral injury. Though the threat is real, the danger great, and their services critically needed, under such stressful and traumatic conditions, "there is only so much that anyone can take."

A Word of Warning

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Camillo "Mac" Bica, Ph.D., is a professor of philosophy at the School of Visual Arts in New York City, a long-time activist for peace and justice, a member of the Vietnam Veterans Against the War, and the coordinator of the Long Island Chapter of Veterans for Peace. His books include "Beyond PTSD: The Moral (more...)

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