In superhero stories, we aren’t privy to all of Black Panther’s worries. We don’t hear often enough about the nightmares Spider-Man has after a scary day at work. We rarely get to see the nuances of who supports Rogue once she’s done fighting battles. Because it’s not sexy to talk about what comes after the fights — we want to see our superheroes as strong.
The story’s the same when it comes to health care workers. Posters calling us “heroes” have always felt like a deflection from policy changes and true support.
We are psychiatry fellows. We want to tell our friends and colleagues, who are caring for COVID-19 patients, that they’ll be OK, that they’ll make it through, that society will do right by them. But we can’t, because as we’ve seen over the past year, it hasn’t been true. Too many Americans still refuse to follow the science; too many refuse to get vaccinated or wear masks. Even as the data suggests the delta variant may have finally peaked, thousands of people are still being hospitalized every day and dying. And employers aren’t doing enough to help health care workers either.
Eighteen months into the pandemic, nearly half of health care workers report burnout. Ninety-three percent are experiencing stress and being stretched too thin. Our fatigue is consuming us. Frontline workers are at higher risk for depression, anxiety, substance use and acute traumatic stress. One in five has already experienced these diagnoses as a direct result of the pandemic — and that’s most likely an underestimate. We are screaming into the void, wishing fervently that society would listen to and support us. But it hasn’t happened.
In every superhero movie, there comes a moment when regular people turn on the heroes for “not doing enough.” Will that happen to health care workers too? Who will heal the healers?
Posters calling us “heroes” have always felt like a deflection from policy changes and true support.
Dr. Jessi Gold has been talking about the mental health challenges facing health care workers since before the pandemic. She’s been one of many people saying, for a long time, that hospital-sponsored yoga classes and wellness programs are woefully insufficient responses to meet the need. “What we need are long-term investments and caring about the people who care for us,” she says.
But right now, we don’t even have a short-term plan to help health workers struggling with the psychiatric disorders we’re seeing, and this will only continue to worsen as the pandemic barrels on. At this point, we can’t expect to retain the health care workers we have. Unless something changes, we are going to run out of people to do the job.
Minoritized physicians in particular have been leaving medicine, overwhelmed by the multiple traumas of racism, institutional betrayal and anti-health care provider sentiments. Asian-American health care workers have been targeted, while they risk their own lives to protect their communities. To make this even more devastating, these are the physicians we need most, as COVID disproportionately impacts minoritized communities.
Medical personnel go through years of grueling, demanding training. But we’ve never trained for an event like this.
So, what do health care workers need during this event and beyond? We asked Dr. Gold, who shared some of her ideas:
To actually solve this problem, hospital systems need to understand that the systems have led to many of the problems and that the problems are not going to disappear with covid-19. That means they have to invest for the long term in changing the culture and prioritizing the mental health of their workforce. With actual funding. Before making a lot of changes in your hospital and assuming you know what works, maybe ask your staff first, what isn’t working, and listen. Make responsive changes to what isn’t working for them in support, in policies like childcare and family leave, in safety around gender and race in the workplace, and access to treatment. All of this is the mental health plan.
And health care providers often tell us they need mental health days available, access to mental health care, and for their employers to hire more providers so that their hours don’t overwhelm them.
[W]e don’t even have a short-term plan to help health workers struggling with the psychiatric disorders we’re seeing ...
Health workers want to provide excellent care and help people heal. But how can we not feel betrayed, when so many won’t do what we know can help keep themselves and others safe? Health workers are taking on a novel virus, active scapegoating, politicians without a shred of scientific knowledge, misinformation, racism and maltreatment, and a lack of empathy in our world.
We aren’t superheroes. We are simply human.
Fortunately, the coronavirus is far easier to defeat than Magneto. Those COVID-19 spike proteins can’t control magnetic fields or toss Mack trucks. The virus’s kryptonite is everyone getting vaccinated and wearing a mask. The true heroes here are the everyday people doing their part to fight our villain. We aren’t asking for much: just kindness, masks and vaccines. And in doing your part, you can save us, too.