Mental health experts discuss support for frontline medical workers in the wake of COVID-19

By Chen Xi Source:Global Times Published: 2020/4/1 23:43:40

The volunteer experts of the Red Cross Society of China communicate their experience of pandemic prevention with medical staff of Baghdad Medical City Hospital in Iraq. Photo: Courtesy of Tao Zhongquan

Due to the widespread outbreak of COVID-19 in Europe and the US, many medical workers in these regions have started to suffer similar psychological stress that Chinese medical workers experienced working on the frontlines of the epidemic in Wuhan, Central China's Hubei Province.

According to reports, some medical staff in the US and Europe have taken to social media to complain about their heavy workloads and share their concerns for their own health and safety. Some medical workers in the US have complained to the government about a lack of personal protective equipment. One 34-year-old nurse in Italy who tested positive for the virus even committed suicide out of fear that she may have infected others.

"Rescuers in major pandemic areas often suffer from severe physical and psychological distress or even mental disintegration due to their empathy for patients and their trauma," Zhang Jingsong, a psychiatrist from the Xinhua Hospital affiliated to the Shanghai Jiao Tong University School of Medicine, told the Global Times on Wednesday.

She explained that although these medical workers are highly professional, they may experience an acute stress reaction including anxiety, anger, and fear when they see such a large number of patients swarm into hospitals and not receive timely treatment or even die.

Liang Hong, deputy director of the Psychological Crisis Intervention Research Center of Huilongguan Hospital, added that mental stress can also lead to physical issues including insomnia and indigestion.    

According to Zhang, mental problems mainly arise for five reasons: lack of rest and sleep, work overload, lack of professional guidance, personal issues and workers' high expectations of themselves.

To relieve this pressure, both Liang and Zhang suggest that workers get enough sleep, maintain a proper diet and accept support from family, colleagues and their superiors.

Since the situation in Wuhan has improved, China has begun withdrawing medical staff from other provinces that went to aid the city. However, returning from an extremely busy work schedule to their normal lives has not been easy for them.

According to a report from the Xinhua News Agency, the World Health Organization revealed that about 30 percent to 50 percent of first-line rescuers experience different degrees of psychological disorders after major emergencies, and symptoms are usually only relieved through timely psychological intervention and after-the-fact support.

Liang said that a majority of returning medical staff will be able to adapt back to normal life, but a few will face severe psychological issues which most likely will require professional psychological counseling.

Zhang Tianbu, the director of the Psychology Department at Shaanxi Provincial People's Hospital, told the Global Times on Wednesday that most medical workers have been trying to regain their physical and mental health through professional counseling, support from people such as family, neighbors and colleagues and some organizations.

In order to provide this much-needed professional counseling in China, the Faculty of Psychology at Beijing Normal University has established a psychological support hotline that provides service 18 hours a day as well as a network counseling service for providing professional psychological support services. Some psychologists have also been volunteering their time to offer similar support to medical staff, according to reports.

Zhang said that the medical staff who returned to Northwest China's Shaanxi Province from Wuhan have been sent to a nursing home for a two-week quarantine and some much-needed rest. They will then stay with their families at home for an additional two weeks. This method of combining quarantine and rest was the idea of the local provincial government and is an example of support from organizations.

He added that it will be important for them to communicate as a group at the nursing home. They should take the opportunity to share their stories and discuss some cases that bothered them with their colleagues, which will be able to help them vent negative feelings and improve their psychological strength. 

"There are no superheros in the world, only brave mortals," Zhang said.

Yu Xi contributed to the story.

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