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COVID-19 taking toll on medical workers mental health

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SAN FRANCISCO, Calif. (KRON) – As you can imagine working on the front lines of COVID-19 can take a mental toll, especially for healthcare workers.

Deaths and cases continue to rise in California, stay at home orders have been extended.

The coronavirus pandemic has been described as an invisible war.

Medical experts say a lot of what healthcare workers are seeing is similar to what members of the military see in combat.

Those who are in the business to heal and care, it is okay to ask for help.

“Anybody who is providing healthcare is under stress and deserves mental health support and I hope they will take the time and trouble to get it,” Dr. David Spiegel, MD, said.

Dr. David Spiegel MD is Willson Professor and Associate Chair of Psychiatry & Behavioral Sciences, Director of the Center on Stress and Health at Stanford University School of Medicine.

He says the combination of long hours, lack of personal protective gear and seeing patients who are severely ill makes it hard to handle the stress of COVID-19.

“People are not getting enough sleep, even when they get home and can sleep, they’re feeling so bad that their sleep is interrupted. They’re not eating regularly, their working 12, 14 and 16 hour shifts,” Spiegel said. 

And then there’s the stay at home orders.

“There’s no doubt that the physical separation we’re having to suffer is adding to the risk of feeling depressed, feeling anxious and thinking about suicide, people who are prone to do that anyway,” Spiegel said. 

This week in New York City, a top ER doctor took her own life.

Her father tells the New York Times the 49-year-old had contracted the virus, recovered and talked about the emotional toll of treating coronavirus patients.

“What happened to this woman, ER doctor is a real tragedy,” Spiegel said. 

A study by the Journal of the American Medical Association found participating nurses and physicians working in Wuhan, China – the epicenter of the COVID-19 outbreak – reported symptoms of depression, anxiety, insomnia and distress.

Dr. Spiegel says any healthcare system should be offering mental health support to staff.

Mindfulness apps can be helpful but it’s important for healthcare workers to help themselves first.

“Eat well, sleep well, get exercise. Realize that you can’t be on 24/7 and that if you can’t take care of yourself, you won’t be able to take care of the patients you want to care for,” Spiegel said. 

Dr. Spiegel says Stanford offers mental health support for its healthcare workers and have seen a surge in people coming in for therapy. 

They’ve pivoted to virtual appointments to connect with patients and to help new people who are suffering.

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