The kind of trauma doctors, nurses, and others in direct contact with COVID-19 patients have endured for months now — with an uncertain future posing a threat of many more months of horror in the hardest-hit areas — is the kind of exhausting and overwhelming stress that impacts the brain and the rest of the body in the worst ways. Whether or not these individuals were mentally healthy before the pandemic, this work takes an often-invisible toll. Sometimes, in a life and death struggle, that toll becomes a pull toward suicide.
Compassionate Fatigue, also called Secondary Traumatic Stress (STS), can happen when professionals or caregivers experience extreme conditions in patients they cannot cure or in conditions of overwhelm or wide-scale disaster. Resulting changes within the brain may interrupt normal functioning.
The Administration for Children & Families (ACF) — a division of the U.S. Department of Health & Human Services – states “While evidence of compassion fatigue can be difficult to recognize, symptoms often mirror the symptoms of Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD).”
Confusion, helplessness, and feelings of isolation greater than burnout may continue into anxiety, dissociation, physical ailments, and sleep disturbances. Though treatable, this condition left untreated can result in problems with both mental and physical health, strained relationships, and poor work performances (Pryce, Shackelford, & Pryce, 2007).
COVID-19 has brought unfamiliar circumstances to most medical professionals, and not having enough supplies (or a reliable treatment) tears at the hearts of compassionate healers who have placed themselves and possibly their families in danger. Their jobs are to save lives, but in this pandemic, they must fight a new kind of war and become sole contacts to patients as families are kept away due to the contagion risk.
The end of this downward slide could be a loss of hope and an increase in the belief that circumstances will never change. This outlook may be hidden from other people for several reasons … shame, a belief that strength and perseverance must be maintained at all costs, or a lack of workable alternatives. In many situations, real, rational, and available help may not be comprehended. A person’s thought process can become limited and irrational, closed off as he becomes disassociated with the world. His thoughts, however, still seem logical to him.
If loved ones are aware of this stressful situation, they can be pulled into the shocking, surreal world of trauma, too. The stress they experience can be detrimental to their health. Their love alone is often not enough once thoughts of suicide manifest. Psychiatrists and therapists working to alleviate these challenging symptoms may have better success … possibly. Treating traumatic wounds, even long after COVID-19 is conquered, should be part of a recovery plan for the nation. Whether it will be remains to be seen.
The strength and resiliency of individuals in this fight may be the best protection for most though the strongest can take only so much. Navy nurses setting up ICU’s where there were none, ambulance paramedics rushing patients to hospitals that are short on room for the overflow, those who are handling the streams of testing and bodies that seem to have no end … and people in areas with a lower number of cases but plenty of uncertainty and fear … in short, all of the heroes who run “toward the fire” will need us.
How to Help:
- Promote Self-Care.
- Provide STS education.
- Encourage open discussion.
- Make counseling resources and Employee Assistance Programs available to all staff.
- Begin support groups overseen by counselors with experience in trauma counseling.
- Encourage life balance through interests, activities, and relationships.
- Foster community involvement and opportunities for relaxation.
For more suggestions, visit the ACF website.
Don’t forget. Prepare for whatever is needed. Fund and follow up on mental and physical health. Reach out at work or at home. Encourage and thank those who serve wherever you see them. Kindness goes a long way to help people heal. Support and care for them the way they supported and cared for our loved ones.
Their jobs are not over. Neither are ours. Before you crowd the shorelines and support the stores you need to support (and we all need to support each other), keep up safeguards like the handwashing, social distancing, alternate methods of ordering and receiving food and supplies: the things that helped reduce the spread of this virus. It matters.
The human brain is a miraculous thing. Using it to protect ourselves and those we still need will ensure flourishing economic growth and a safe atmosphere. That will turn the tide of a pandemic that is out of our control.
Pryce, J., Shackelford, K. & Pryce, D. (2007). Secondary traumatic stress and the child welfare professional. Chicago, IL: Lyceum Books, Inc.
Secondary Traumatic Stress. (n.d.). Retrieved from https://www.acf.hhs.gov/trauma-toolkit/secondary-traumatic-stress