Several doctors and nurses who served as frontline workers during the COVID-19 pandemic experienced tremendous stress, other mental health problems and felt “burnt out”, an expert has said while stressing on the need to address their health concerns.
There were many incidents wherein doctors and nurses attempted or committed suicide in the world due to depression during the pandemic, Dr Vithyalakshmi Selvaraj, psychiatrist and chief medical officer of the Omaha Insomnia and Psychiatric Services, Nebraska, USA, told PTI.
She gave a presentation on ‘Long term consequences of COVID-19 infection’ at the Indian Science Congress currently underway in Nagpur.
Speaking on the sidelines of the presentation, Dr Selvaraj said depression, anxiety and sleeplessness magnified not just in India, but across the world, and there was need to “destigmatise” mental illness and increase awareness to prevent negative outcomes of such disorders.
She said a study of 662 adults in India found that more than 80 per cent (of the respondents) were preoccupied with COVID-19- related thoughts, 37.8 per cent reported paranoia about having COVID-19 infection, 36.4 per cent reported stress and 12.5 per cent reported sleep disturbances.
More than 80 percent of (study) participants reported the need for mental health services (care). Also, many case studies from India, Pakistan and Bangladesh reported that individuals committed suicide out of the fear of COVID-19, she said.
Females under 40 years of age, students and people with chronic illnesses or history of a psychiatric illness comprised the high risk population for mental health conditions during the pandemic, Dr Selvaraj said.
She said the pandemic has resulted in a significant increase in mental health conditions such as major depressive disorder and anxiety.
Factors like social isolation, high utilisation of social media and loneliness have exacerbated the physical and mental health issues, she added.
During the pandemic, mental health disorders were experienced not just by the general population, but also frontline workers such as doctors and nurses who were fearful that they may expose their family members to COVID-19 due to their work with the viral infection patients, she said.
“The health care workers were burnt out as they did not have the training of what to do, how to treat (patients) and how to take care of themselves,” Dr Selvaraj said.
She said that after COVID-19, students whom she has mentored do not want to become a doctor or a nurse.
“This job has become very hard and is not as it was before,” she added.
Providing mental health care to frontline workers is necessary as doctors and nurses face tremendous stress which can lead to several issues like depression, anxiety and suicidal tendencies, she said.
Pitching for national awareness of mental health, Dr Selvaraj said, “it should start from home and you need to take care of each other at home.”.
She said youngsters are ashamed (to talk about such issues) and the stigma is a real challenge.
They can’t even tell their parents about the stress they are going through. It should start from home identifying why they are isolating themselves, why they seem to be depressed, she said.
Dr Selvaraj said mental health awareness can be started from schools with counsellors talking to students about it.
She said simple yet powerful conversations such as “Are you fearful of COVID-19? It is ok to talk about it, will help immensely.” She said it can be done in hospitals, every sector and social media as well.
The mental health awareness can be done through billboards on buses, trains, radio and television commercials.
“Increased mental health awareness and improving our resilience will prevent negative mental health outcomes. Let’s start working on destigmatising mental illness,” she said.
Dr Selvaraj also said patients with pre-existing mental health conditions are at a higher risk of COVID-19 infection, hospitalisation, COVID-19-related death as well as reduced response to vaccine against the viral infection.
Long COVID-19/post-COVID-19 syndrome is particularly a concern with detrimental health, she added.