Providers reminded to care for their mental health during COVID-19 crisis

During the coronavirus pandemic, health care professionals have been caught in a triangle of caring for overly stressed staff, anxious patients and attending to their own mental health.

Borrowing the language from airlines’ safety preflight safety warning, physicians need to put their own air masks on before they help others, said Chris Botts, Care Delivery and Payment Manager for the American Medical Association.


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Botts, who spoke last month at the AMA’s “Managing Mental Health During COVID-19” webinar event, urged physicians to take care of themselves.

“Attending to your own mental health and psychosocial health is just as important as managing your physical health,” Botts said.

Physicians need to feel free to have feelings, and they must know that it’s not a sign of weakness, he said.

To ease the stress on overworked staff, he recommends rotating workers through high-stress positions and to have supports in place to detect deteriorating mental health in both staff and patients.

“This is particularly important because the stigma around mental health could make patients reluctant to seek help,” he said.

He also urged providers to use or recommend telemedicine, especially now that the regulations around it has been relaxed.

United States Senator Tim Kaine, of Virginia, also spoke on physician emotional burnout at a Mental Health America conference this fall.

“My wife Ann and I have grappled with the pandemic,” he said during the presentation. “We’ve both had coronavirus. Two of our three adult children were laid off for months because of coronavirus. We’ve known four people who have died of coronavirus.”

Kaine added that the pandemic has compounded the mental health needs for many Americans who were already suffering before the pandemic began.

“Group treatment for substance abuse, for example, has been harder to do with social distancing,” he said. “There’s so much I’m seeing around the commonwealth and I’m sure you’re seeing that as well.”

Kaine mentioned Dr. Lorna Breen, an emergency room doctor who died of suicide in April as she was dealing with stress from treating patients with coronavirus.

She was a victim of coronavirus, even though she was not among those deaths counted directly as a result of the virus, Kaine said.

“We place enormous pressure on our healers,” he said. “She became so overworked.”

Breen was afraid that if she sought mental health help she would lose her job, Kaine said. She was afraid to get help.

Even before the pandemic struck, physicians were struggling emotionally, according to a MedScape study released in 2019. In the study, 44% reported feeling burned out, 11% colloquially depressed and 4% clinically depressed. The higher number of hours worked, the more depression was reported.

In the State of Reform Leadership Series: Mental Health Policy in 2021, stakeholders addressed the issue in deeper detail. Specifically, panelists noted the fact that there are more than twice the number of suicides per year than there are murders.