Medical professionals carry our stress as a sign of honor. We are proud to be able to thrive under stress and endure long hours and grueling working conditions. We believe that being the empathy scale that others rely on during emergencies is an integral part of our role as caregivers and a reflection of our personality.
While we are more than willing to admit that protracted crises can undermine even the most unwavering constitution, many of us are reluctant to accept this fact when considering our own circumstances. We have repeatedly told our patients to seek mental health services after a trauma and advised them not to be ashamed that they needed help. However, all too often we ignore this advice when we hear it from a friend, family member or colleague and internalize the stigma we criticize publicly.
For those of us who worked during the darkest days of the COVID-19 pandemic, battling what was an unknown virus in 2020 through the delta option and many omicron sub-variants, the stress of being at the forefront and fighting Worrying about potentially endangering our families, friends and patients is something we will probably never forget. Whether or not someone has been infected with the SARS-CoV-2 virus, the experience is painful and the feeling of helplessness at times exhausting.
This is truly one of the crucial elements of traumatic distress – not just feeling scared or shocked, but also feeling unable to stop the traumatic event when it occurs. The rise in COVID-19 cases has often been relentless. There are days when there is a feeling that we are trying to extinguish hell with a water pistol.
Simply getting rid of this overwhelming sense of helplessness or the fact that one had to witness such a wealth of human misery and attribute it to one of the shortcomings of medical practice is to ignore the seriousness of the situation. No one can prepare to go through years when the world is completely upside down and expect to care for the dying while seeing friends and colleagues get sick on a regular basis. In order not to feel at least sometimes psychologically overwhelmed by the scale of the tragedy, you will need pain relief.
Medical professionals expect to treat terminally ill patients, confront death, and face a much higher risk than many other professions. This is the nature of our work. However, we must accept that there is a time when it is appropriate and even necessary to seek help. This does not mean that we should avoid making extra efforts on behalf of our patients or that we should be much more risk-averse, but we should acknowledge our own limitations. Medical professionals need to be trained to know when they are too stressed to think clearly, instead of being subjected to lions to tread from one shift to another.
This is largely a cultural phenomenon in the field of medicine and is something that can only be changed if we stop normalizing the behavior that promotes burnout in the beginning – in residency and medical school. If someone is taught that it is a sign of weakness to seek help to cope with stress from work in a hospital setting and that the behavior assessed is to be strong and silent, then this will discourage clinicians from seeking mental health services for themselves. Even under normal circumstances, this can lead to burnout, anxiety, depression, trauma and stress disorders, such as post-traumatic stress disorder and substance use disorders.
The latter is especially common among medical professionals. Since 2014, substance use disorder has been estimated to affect 20.2 million adults in the United States, with a prevalence rate of 8.4%. It has been found that the life expectancy among all medical professionals varies between 10% and 15%. For nurses, the prevalence can be as high as 20%. Facing wave after wave of patients with new variants of COVID-19 is likely to raise these staggering numbers. This may also force more medical professionals to leave their field.
Without a change in the culture of medicine, we will remain more susceptible to substance abuse, burnout and anxiety or depressive disorders. In addition, the desire to put your mental health constantly in the background means only a reduced ability to offer the best care to patients. For veterans of the departments, he also sends the wrong message to our younger colleagues and maintains a toxic culture.
Viewed in this light, self-care is an absolute necessity if the best possible patient care is our priority and our ethical duty, which is. Medical professionals usually have access to mental health services through their work. It is highly recommended that they integrate wellness and self-care to help cope with and sustain stress from the COVID-19 era and beyond.
Ahmad is a clinical professor of psychiatry at a major academic medical center in New York and author of the recently published book Dealing with COVID-19: The Mental, Medical, and Social Consequences of the Pandemic.