Even before the pandemic, the rate of suicide among nurses and doctors was twice that of the general public. Now, due to the strain of the coronavirus pandemic, 50% report feeling burned out.
As a result, one Virginia lawmaker is proposing a way to provide long-term help.
“It’s not easy to pronounce three people [dead] on a 12-hour shift, and having those end-of-life conversations,” said Dr. Amit Vashist of the Johnson Memorial Hospital in Abingdon, Virginia, during a virtual discussion Monday.
Vashist was among front line health care workers talking with U.S. Sen. Tim Kaine (D-Va.) in support of the Dr. Lorna Breen Health Care Provider Protection Act, legislation that aims to reduce and prevent suicide and burnout in the health care community.
Even though there’s optimism on many fronts with vaccines beginning to roll out, Vashist noted that another 100,000 Americans are expected to die. Health care workers and their families are vulnerable like everyone else.
“This is an unrelenting mental toll, an emotional toll that the pandemic has given upon us,” he said. “We need mental health professionals on the front line who are measuring us up, making sure that we are doing OK; that our families are OK.”
Heather Mayberry is a clinical nurse specialist at Lynchburg General Hospital. She described what it’s like for nurses experiencing multiple deaths each day of people they try to communicate with through layers of personal protective equipment. She said she and her colleagues try to communicate to patients that they are people and aren’t being treated as a germ.
“Knowing that the moment that you walk into the patient’s room, you know they are not going to survive,” Mayberry said. “But, being able to maintain positivity and smile and maybe make them laugh before they’re intubated, to be able to give them that positive moment in such a terrible time for them and their family — to be able to maintain that smile on your face — it’s a very hard thing.”
Having collected stories from fellow staff members to share with Kaine, Mayberry said nurses feel awkward when they have to use FaceTime so families can say goodbye to their sick relative.
“Usually that is time that is private for the family and [the nurses] are now having to stand there and try to subdue their tears so that they don’t interrupt that very precious time with those families,” she said.
Numbers of the front line workers talking with Kaine discussed the stigma of mental health issues and isolation resulting from COVID-19 precautions, and not feeling as if they can burden their own families with what they’re going through.
One expert said he thinks the stigma that comes along with mental health struggles in the medical community could be addressed by reframing it as an occupational hazard instead of personal dysfunction.
“Vulnerability is considered a sign of weakness, self-care is considered selfish,” said Dr. Lucas Collazo, chair of the Inova Medical Affairs Counsel at the Inova Fairfax Medical Campus.
“The fact that this bill may provide a new culture change or mind set for our medical student trainees, I think, is absolutely key. It requires a whole cultural transformation of how we view this,” he said.
Kaine embraced the concept, likening it to someone whose repetitive stress motion at work leads to them developing carpal tunnel syndrome.
If Kaine’s measure isn’t included in a COVID-19 relief package, he hopes it will pass in a larger spending bill.
“We have virtually every medical group out there that has said: ‘Yeah, we have a problem,'” Kaine said. “The mental health challenges of dealing with this intense suffering and death over the course of this number of months — the mental health consequences of this is going to go on for a very long time.”
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