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Front line health workers facing mental health crisis due to COVID-19

iStock/Halfpoint (NEW YORK) — With a third of Americans developing symptoms of anxiety and depression during COVID-19, a number that is twice as high as the amount before the pandemic, experts say healthcare workers are facing a crisis.

With doctors comparing hospital emergency rooms to warzones, health officials say doctors exposed to combat-like conditions can have a damaging effect on their psyche.  

While it is too early to quantify the damage such conditions have had upon healthcare workers, a JAMA Network Open article published in March says over half of the more than 1,200 medical workers in China developed signs of clinical depression and anxiety.

Over a third of respondents developed insomnia while roughly 70 percent claimed to feel distressed.  Survey participants in Wuhan, China — the epicenter of the country’s outbreak — had the most severe symptoms.

Health officials say that there are dire consequences of ignoring the mental health of nurses, doctors and other medical officials. 

Tragically, a New York doctor who served as the medical director to one of the city’s hardest-hit hospitals died by suicide in April at the age of 49.  Prior to the pandemic, Dr. Lorna Breen had no history of mental illness.

Dr. Jessica Gold, an assistant professor of psychiatry at Washington University in St. Louis, explained “Health care workers are not starting with a baseline of zero. They had super elevated depression, suicide rates and burnout prior to COVID.”

Studies have found that those working in the medical industry have a higher risk of suicide than the general public, with male doctors 40 percent more likely to die by suicide while female doctors are 130 percent more at risk.

However, COVID-19 presents a new difficulty, which is a helplessness in not being able to save tens of thousands of lives.  In addition, some doctors and nurses are choosing to isolate away from their families to reduce the risk of spreading the illness.

Dr. Carlos del Rio, a professor of medicine and global health at Emory, cautioned that with the current rate of 1,500 deaths per day in the country, the nation could suffer another 100,000 deaths by Labor Day.

In the U.S., as of Sunday, there are over 1.8 million confirmed cases and over 106,000 deaths, according to Johns Hopkins University.  

Copyright © 2020, ABC Audio. All rights reserved.

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