A Brighter Tomorrow: Health care workers are battling COVID-19 and a decline in mental health

COLUMBIA - Health care professionals are fighting the deadly COVID-19 virus while struggling with their own mental health as we near the year mark of the pandemic. 

The COVID-19 pandemic has exhausted health care professionals around the globe with long hours and an overwhelming number of patients in hospitals and intensive care units. Burrell Behavioral Health's Chief Medical Officer explained how her own mental health was worsened by the ongoing health crisis. 

"Health care workers have had a parallel pandemic going on with the mental health crisis," Dr. Garima Singh said. "We've been through phases of emotions starting with fear, nervousness and denial of not knowing what's going to happen to feelings of exhaustion and being overwhelmed." 

According to a study by Mental Health America from June to September 2020, 93% of health care workers in the study reported high levels of stress from the pandemic. Nearly 76% reported feelings of exhaustion, burnout and being overwhelmed from work. 

Dr. Arpit Aggarwal is an assistant professor of psychiatry at MU Health Care. He explained even though COVID-19 cases are trending down in mid-Missouri, health care workers will continue to struggle with their mental health. 

"The mental health effects of this pandemic will last for months, if not years to come, even after we go back to 'normal'," Dr. Aggarwal said. "We know from previous pandemics that as the physical tolls of pandemics subside the mental health toll will take much longer." 

Looking back on the past year, doctors, nurses, psychiatrists and other health care workers have dealt with waves of stress resulting from the pandemic. Professionals first dealt with a lack of PPE in hospitals at the start of the pandemic. Then, COVID-19 guidelines were constantly changing from the CDC and local health departments. Workers then managed multiple COVID-19 case spikes and a significant increase in hospitalizations. 

Dr. Aggarwal explained the last year has taken its toll on those taking care of everyone during tough times. 

"We've seen an increase in our colleagues mental health problems with stress, anxiety and depression here at MU Health Care," Dr. Aggarwal said. "With previous pandemics and epidemics, none of them have been this long. With COVID-19, we're over a year of battling the virus." 

With the increase in mental health problems for health care workers, it's important the ones who are taking care of us take care of themselves as well. Burrell Behavioral Health implemented a mental health initiative for its employees in response to the ongoing pandemic. 

"'Be Well' is our virtual platform that was started with COVID-19 that provides our employees and our community with a safe space to focus on self care," Dr. Singh said. "We've been focused on problem solving techniques, gratitude, kindness, grounding techniques and mindfulness and it's been an excellent resource for our entire community." 

The 'Be Well' program at Burrell is one of many mental health initiatives for health care workers during the COVID-19 pandemic. MU Health Care also recognizes the need to bring awareness to workers mental health. 

"At MU Health Care we have a physician wellness program that has been very successful with any physicians who are experiencing any burnout, stress or anxiety," Dr. Aggarwal said. "These programs have been there before the pandemic, but it just became much more popular for doctors and nurses to use now when they really need it." 

Boone Hospital Center has also provided for its health care staff throughout the pandemic. The senior consultant for Boone Hospital's Employee Assistance Program explained how the hospital provides short term mental health care for its employees and their families. 

"Folks at this time need extra help and there's nothing wrong asking for it," Kimberly Smith said. "During COVID there are so many concerns coming up with mental health and our services are being utilized a lot more intensely by employees." 

For health professionals experiencing burnout or stress from the pandemic, Mental Health First Aid recommends a few steps to take for self care: 

  • Recognize and validate your feelings. Working during a pandemic is exhausting, and it's okay to be aware feelings of depression and anxiety. 
  • Take care of your physical health. Exercising and eating well can help improve overall mental health while battling extreme emotions from stress. 
  • Ask for help. There are programs available to help you cope with the burden this pandemic has given health care workers everywhere. You do not have to battle this alone. 

For themselves and the community, health professionals recommend still keeping in contact with friends and families to improve mental health. 

"Social distancing should not mean social isolation," Dr. Aggarwal said. "Have a routine, exercise, take breaks and keep in contact with your family. There are multiple ways to safely do it now with the technology we have." 

The recent distribution of the COVID-19 vaccine and decline of COVID-19 case numbers in mid-Missouri can seem like the light at the end of a very dark tunnel. Dr. Singh explained one positive coming out of the pandemic is the awareness of the severity of mental health. 

"Mental health disorders were impacting our lives before COVID-19, and now it's become a public health crisis," Dr. Singh said. "We know more and more people are struggling and with the pandemic, our community and our government is recognizing it. That's why we're trying to get more help." 

Along with awareness for mental health issues, the pandemic has also brought a newfound appreciation for health care workers and the work they are doing to keep everyone safe and healthy. 

"A lot of us are appreciating our health care heroes and perhaps even things we didn't appreciate before, like the small things in life," Smith said. "Before COVID, we may have never really taken the time to notice or think what a blessing or a gift life is." 

Burrell Behavioral Health, MU Health Care and Boone Hospital all offer mental health resources for their employees during the pandemic. KOMU 8 Cares has a full list of mental health resources for mid-Missouri.