Home Health & Wellness From Covid and Beyond: What to Know About PTSD in Health Care Workers

From Covid and Beyond: What to Know About PTSD in Health Care Workers

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Covid has shed a stark light on the mental challenges healthcare workers face. The relentless pressure, high stakes and prolonged trauma exposure during the pandemic have exacerbated existing issues and created new ones. Posttraumatic stress disorder (PTSD) is a significant concern in the medical field, with potentially lasting impacts.

Here’s what you should know about this issue:.

The prevalence of PTSD in healthcare workers

Unfortunately, PTSD isn’t a new phenomenon among health care workers, but the pandemic has dramatically increased its prevalence. Studies indicate that during the Covid crisis, 13.52% of health care workers exhibited PTSD symptoms. 

This is significantly higher than what you see in the general population – about 6% of American adults – highlighting the unique stressors those on the frontlines face. The World Health Organization (WHO) and various national health bodies have acknowledged this surge, prompting calls for targeted mental health interventions. 

Causes and risk factors

Several factors contributed to the heightened risk of PTSD among health care workers during the pandemic:

  • Trauma exposure. Regular exposure to critically ill patients, high mortality rates, and the emotional toll of losing patients can lead to severe stress and trauma.
  • Workload and burnout. Overwhelming workloads, extended shifts, and insufficient rest exacerbated physical and mental exhaustion. Most nurses were working an additional 31–40 hours on top of their 40 hours each week, paving the way for PTSD. 
  • Personal risk. The fear of contracting the virus and the potential to spread it to loved ones added a personal dimension to the professional stress, intensifying anxiety and fear.
  • Moral injury. Situations where workers must make ethically challenging decisions, such as rationing care due to limited resources, can lead to guilt, which is closely linked to PTSD. 

Symptoms of PTSD in healthcare workers

PTSD manifests in various ways, and recognising the symptoms is crucial for early intervention. Common symptoms include: 

  • Intrusive thoughts. Recurrent memories of traumatic events, nightmares and flashbacks
  • Avoidance. Avoiding people, places and activities that are reminders of the trauma
  • Negative changes in thinking and mood. Feelings of hopelessness, memory problems, persistent negative emotions and detachment from others
  • Altered reactivity. Being startled easily, difficulty sleeping, irritability and trouble concentrating

What can be done?

While healthcare workers must be able to adapt to high-pressure situations to perform well, they’re still humans and susceptible to stress and trauma. You can implement proactive measures to prevent PTSD, including:

  • Professional counselling. Access to mental health professionals specialising in trauma is essential. Cognitive behavioural therapy (CBT) and eye movement desensitisation and reprocessing (EMDR) are effective treatments.
  • Peer support programmes. Some studies have shown that peer support groups for physicians can produce great results. Creating support groups within the health care setting where workers can share experiences and provide mutual support can be beneficial.
  • Organisational changes. You must foster a supportive work environment, which includes reasonable working hours, adequate rest, and mental health resources. 
  • Resilience training. Programmes designed to build resilience can help workers develop coping strategies, such as meditation and self-care, to manage stress and trauma more effectively. 
  • Policy and advocacy. You should prioritise mental health by implementing policies that provide adequate support and resources to health care professionals.

Moving forward: lessons from the pandemic

The Covid pandemic has revealed the need for systemic changes to protect the mental health of health care workers. Long-term strategies to reduce the incidence of PTSD include:

  • Regular mental health screenings. Routine mental health assessments for health care workers are needed to identify and address issues early. These screenings typically involve answering questions about mental health to protect your well-being.
  • Integrated mental health services. Ensuring mental health services are an integral part of the health care system, not an afterthought. You should address challenges before they become severe, not when it’s too late.
  • Research and funding. Investing in research is necessary to understand the pandemic’s full impact on mental health and develop evidence-based interventions. 

Strengthening the healthcare system

The pandemic has placed unprecedented stress on medical workers, and you should be aware of the urgent need to address PTSD within the essential workforce. Mental well-being is critical to the health care system’s resilience and effectiveness in facing future challenges.

Marlene Coleman, a psychology graduate from the University of Hertfordshire, has a keen interest in the fields of mental health, wellness, and lifestyle.

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