Mental health spotlighted in medical community during COVID-19 pandemic

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TWIN FALLS, Idaho (KMVT/KSVT) – May is Mental Health Awareness Month and there’s no doubt that due to the coronavirus, many of people are struggling with feelings of fear, anxiety and depression. However, no group is at greater risk for developing mental health conditions than the medical community.

May is Mental Health Awareness Month and there’s no doubt that due to the coronavirus, many of people are struggling with feelings of fear, anxiety and depression. However, no group is at greater risk for developing mental health conditions than the medical community. (Source: KMVT)

KMVT reached out to Dr. Matthew Larsen, who is the acute care service line medial director at St. Luke’s Health System.

“Physicians are the highest profession in terms of rates of suicide, that’s pre-COVID," Larson said. "They have access to highly legal means and they have high-stress jobs. You add something like COVID-19 and it magnifies the stress that we normally see.”

“We are seeing an unprecedented stress on the medical system. We’ve never seen a demand and a stress like this before,” said St. Luke's Health System's Dr. David Spritzer, who is a family practice doctor and a part of the Wellness Committee.

Prior to the pandemic, journal after journal claimed that mental illness and burnout are epidemics to health care workers and physicians — in particular. That rang true for one top New York City emergency room doctor in the front line of the pandemic, Dr. Lorna M. Breen, who took her own life weeks ago. The effects of burnout to the medical community can be hard to overcome.

Dr. Christopher Edwards, who is the lead psychologist at St. Luke’s Magic Valley hospital, says burnout is typical for health care workers.

“Our medical providers, specifically those who are on the front lines providing care, a lot of times they function in what we call a sort of flight or fight kind of mode," Edwards said. "That’s that mode of coming in getting the job done, setting aside any worries, setting aside any concern and being super focused upon providing care for our patients. When they go home, they’re exhausted because mentally they’ve been really super focused on providing that great care all day long."

However, their biggest support group or their family, might not even be accessible during this time.

“Before a lot of these, care givers got their recharge from their family or friends," said Spritzer. "Now like all of us, they’re on isolation. So, they don’t get that."

According to the Journal of the American Medical Association, a survey was given to 1,257 healthcare workers in Wuhan, China, in January through February of this year. The results showed that front-line healthcare workers during the pandemic had a high-risk of developing unfavorable mental health outcomes, which may require treatment.

However, there is hope. That treatment and many other resources are being offered right here in the community at St. Luke’s Health System.

“There’s a little bit of embarrassment sometimes in saying, ‘I think I need to seek out some help myself, I need to be willing to go out and talk to somebody about some of these feelings that I’m having,’: Edwards said. "As healthcare providers our job is to provide support to other people, our job is to provide care to other people and treatment to other people. Sometimes there is the perception that if we need to seek out help for ourselves, that is a sign of weakness and somehow we are fragile. So I think that’s why, for example, they do have the Wellness Committee. That’s why we did set up the Employee Support Line, for that very reason."

St. Luke’s provides their employee’s with a behavioral health support line, where staff can call-in to talk about any of their feelings, COVID-19 concerns and even family stressors. Another resource is the Wellness Committee, which has been around for 10 years. It’s a free-of-charge and completely anonymous telehealth counseling service, which is being offered to healthcare workers.

“Our purpose is to try to help the medical staff of the Magic Valley, Jerome and Wood River with their emotional, physical and mental well-being,” Spritzer said.

The best way that people can help the medical community through this tough time is by showing compassion and gratitude.

“Understanding, you know if you have a friend or a co-worker who is working in those situations, be willing to offer a lending ear," Edwards said. "Be willing to offer some space, but also there’s an opportunity to say, ‘Hey, I’m here to talk if you want to talk about something’ or ‘I’m here not to talk and I’m happy just to be able to sit here with you’ also."

“A ‘thank you’ sounds simple, but it does amazing things for doctors and providers,” Spritzer said.