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How COVID-19 Could Affect Health Care Workers

In This Article

  • A study out of China on the mental health of health care workers exposed to COVID-19 may have implications for colleagues in the U.S. as well
  • The COVID-19 pandemic has unique characteristics, making it hard to examine the long-term effects by comparison of other trauma studies
  • Roy Perlis, MD, director of the Center for Qualitative Health at Massachusetts General Hospital, believes that the effects of the current pandemic need to be closely monitored

A team of researchers led by Jianbo Lai, MSc, at the Zhejiang University School of Medicine recently published a study in JAMA Network Open that examined the mental health of health care workers exposed to COVID-19 in China. The researchers conducted an online survey of around 1,200 health care workers across 34 hospitals in the country. The results showed a significant strain on the mental health of health care workers: over 70% of respondents reported symptoms of distress, about half were experiencing symptoms of depression and/or anxiety and a third reported symptoms of insomnia.

Applying Findings to the U.S.

Roy Perlis, MD, MSc, director of the Center for Quantitative Health at Massachusetts General Hospital, has been following the research from China and said that it can apply to U.S. health care workers as well. Some of the most concerning metrics from the study describe a high level of psychological distress.

Of the 70% of respondents who reported distress, a third of those said their distress was at a level associated with post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). While this does not mean that those respondents will develop PTSD, Dr. Perlis said that this is an indicator that there will be long-term or even chronic consequences of this pandemic on mental health. Researchers also found that more junior frontline health care workers and those with the most direct contact with patients were more at risk for developing mental health symptoms, suggesting that within this population, individuals may need a wide range of care.

Dr. Perlis noted that the findings from Dr. Lai's COVID-19 study are consistent with findings gathered during the SARS epidemic of 2003. However, it is difficult to compare the current pandemic to other studies around trauma, as the focus of those studies tends to be one single acute stressor or event. The COVID-19 pandemic, Dr. Perlis said, is like "chronic stress punctuated by moments of more acute stress," making it more aligned with the trauma inflicted during war.

Solutions Moving Forward

Dr. Perlis said that awareness of the long-term effects of this pandemic on mental health will be valuable as time goes on. Continuing to develop resources online to help individuals experiencing a strain on mental health is also important. However, we should be aware that every individual may need different levels of care, and there will be a need for additional help during and after this pandemic.

View all COVID-19 updates

View the Department of Psychiatry's Guide to Mental Health Resources

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