When emergency physician Lorna M. Breen took her own life this past April, it sent shockwaves through the medical community. Breen was a medical director at the prestigious New York Presbyterian-Allen Hospital, which was overwhelmed with patients in the early days of the U.S. coronavirus pandemic. Colleagues and family remembered her as an extremely talented and devoted doctor, who was deeply traumatized by the horror of the pandemic.
Breen’s case brought attention to the ongoing trauma faced by healthcare workers during a prolonged public health crisis. Studies already show high rates of PTSD in medical workers who have been braving the pandemic. In Italy, almost 50% of surveyed medical workers have demonstrated PTSD symptoms related to the pandemic. A full 70% of Chinese medical workers exhibited serious distress.
In the United States, where cases continue to surge and PPE and staffing shortages remain, many medical workers are showing signs of depression, panic, and paranoia. “This isn’t posttraumatic yet, because the trauma piece is still ongoing,” Laura S. Brown, a clinical psychologist, told the American Psychological Association.
While the pandemic is placing unprecedented strain on the American healthcare system, some medical workers say that these problems aren’t new. Just as the coronavirus has revealed the glaring gaps in the United State’s mental health and housing safety nets, it has also brought the challenging conditions medical workers face into sharp relief.
“The pandemic arrived to a healthcare system that’s already deeply in crisis,” said Wendy Dean, a psychiatrist and president of Moral Injury of Healthcare, a group that advocates for more sustainable medical workplaces. “All of the challenges that clinicians are facing prior to the pandemic are just highlighted, exacerbated, and added to.”