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How Pandemics Affect Healthcare Workers’ Mental Health

Past pandemics may help us understand the mental health problems we face.

While SARS and MERS haven’t helped us fight SARS-CoV-2, these pandemics may help us understand the mental health problems we face. To do this, researchers at the University of East Anglia looked at 19 studies that included data predominantly from the SARS outbreak in Asia and Canada and which tended to focus on the acute stage of the pandemic. They uncovered that the mental health of frontline staff was affected by treating patients during the SARS and MERS outbreaks. For example, the European Journal of Psychotraumatology reported that 23.4% of healthcare workers experienced PTSD during the most intense acute phase of previous pandemic outbreaks. Furthermore, after a year, 11.9% of healthcare workers still experienced PTSD symptoms.

In addition, more than a third of health workers, 34.1%, experienced higher levels of mental distress and experienced symptoms such as anxiety or depression during the most severe phase of the pandemic. After six months, mental distress symptoms affected 17.9% of health workers but then increased again to 29.3% at the one-year mark and beyond.

Facing the Mental Health Challenges Ahead

Ultimately, the researchers hope this work will provide insight into the impact of the Covid-19 pandemic on healthcare providers. All are facing considerable pressure over a sustained period while fighting what might be a more deadly virus because of the lack of PPE.

“There is some evidence that some mental health symptoms, such as Post Traumatic Stress symptoms, get better naturally over time, but we cannot be sure about this,” said co-author Sophie Allan. “We didn’t find any differences between doctors and nurses experiencing PTSD or other psychiatric conditions, but the available data was limited, and more research is needed to explore this.” 

In the meantime, know that it is important to take care of yourself and know that you are not alone. Also, try to remain in your resilient zone. This is when you can navigate the peaks and valleys of life without too much cost to yourself physically, mentally, and emotionally.

If you become hyper-vigilant and irritable, depressed, disengaged, apathetic, or numb, you may have exceeded your zone’s limits, according to Cynda Rushton, Ph.D., RN, of Johns Hopkins School of Nursing. And that’s when you need to pay attention to yourself and do things that help nourish you. To get back into that resilient zone, take the time to do something you enjoy, whether it is spending time with your loved ones (or maybe alone), with nature, or with your favorite activity. If this isn’t enough, you may need professional help.

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