COVID-19 and Mental Health: How COVID-19 is Impacting Female Healthcare Workers

By Giselle Hunt


“They’re scared. They are frightened in anticipation of what’s to come… They are scared for their patients, they are scared for themselves and their own health. They are afraid about their families, their loved ones.” [1]

This statement by Dr. Sandy Buchman, the president of the Canadian Medical Association, reflects what healthcare workers around the world are feeling during the COVID-19 pandemic. Currently, medical professionals are on the front-line of the pandemic response where they work tirelessly every day to treat patients with active cases, increasing their personal risk of infection. Furthermore, many healthcare workers are being challenged by a deficit in personal protective equipment as well as working long and stressful shifts [1]. These conditions put them in danger of developing psychological distress and other symptoms of mental illness.

Studies have shown that the Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome (SARS) crisis in 2003 had a profound impact on healthcare providers’ mental health both in Asia and in Toronto, where the largest concentration of North American cases occurred [2]. Two years after the outbreak’s resolution, healthcare workers in Toronto who treated SARS patients had significantly elevated signs of chronic stress such as professional burnout, missed work due to stress or illness, and symptoms of depression and anxiety [3]. In Hong Kong, research suggested that being a healthcare worker and being a woman were significant risk factors for poor psychological adjustment one year after the outbreak [4].

While the battle against COVID-19 is still ongoing, early data shows that this pandemic, like SARS, has significantly affected the mental health of healthcare professionals and takes a larger toll on female staff. An online survey conducted in China eight weeks after the COVID-19 outbreak found that medical healthcare workers had higher rates of insomnia, anxiety, depression, and obsessive-compulsive symptoms compared to nonmedical healthcare workers [5]. It was also seen that within medical healthcare workers, being female independently increased the risk of depression and anxiety [5]. Similarly, another study based in China found that being a woman in healthcare was associated with a higher incidence of severe depression, anxiety, and distress [6], and a study of healthcare staff in Iran likewise found that female staff experienced more distress and depression [7]. The unequal impact of COVID-19 on women’s mental health is not limited to healthcare workers. Within the general population of Turkey, depression and anxiety scores were significantly higher among women, suggesting that the psychiatric impact of the COVID-19 pandemic may be greater for women overall [8].

These studies highlight the importance of supporting frontline workers through mental health interventions during this unprecedented time. Moreover, they demonstrate that female healthcare professionals should have additional support during the next few months. Their mental health is at a higher risk of being negatively affected.

On April 22nd 2020, the Canadian Mental Health Association British Columbia Division (CMHA BC), SafeCare BC, and the Province of BC launched an online education resource called Care for Caregivers which is designed to protect and support the psychological health of frontline healthcare workers [9]. Furthermore, the BC government announced $5 million in funding for the expansion of existing mental health programs and making available more mental health resources to support the general public [10].

A list of these mental health resources can be found on the Government of British Columbia website linked below: https://www2.gov.bc.ca/gov/content/health/managing-your-health/mental-health-substance-use/virtual-supports-covid-19

References

1. Jackson, Hannah. ‘They’re scared’: How COVID-19 is impacting the mental health of doctors, nurses Globalnews.ca. https://globalnews.ca/news/6811347/coronavirurs-health-workers-mental-health/. Accessed 14 May 2020.

2. Johnston, B. Lynn, and John M. Conly. “Severe acute respiratory syndrome: What have we learned two years later?.” Canadian Journal of Infectious Diseases and Medical Microbiology 15.6 (2004): 309-312.

3. Maunder, Robert G., et al. “Long-term psychological and occupational effects of providing hospital healthcare during SARS outbreak.” Emerging infectious diseases 12.12 (2006): 1924.

4. Lee, Antoinette M., et al. “Stress and psychological distress among SARS survivors 1 year after the outbreak.” The Canadian Journal of Psychiatry 52.4 (2007): 233-240.

5. Zhang, Wen-rui, et al. “Mental health and psychosocial problems of medical health workers during the COVID-19 epidemic in China.” Psychotherapy and psychosomatics (2020): 1-9.

6. Lai, Jianbo, et al. “Factors associated with mental health outcomes among health care workers exposed to coronavirus disease 2019.” JAMA network open 3.3 (2020): e203976-e203976.

7.  Zhang, Stephen X., et al. “At the height of the storm: Healthcare staff’s health conditions and job satisfaction and their associated predictors during the epidemic peak of COVID-19.” Brain, Behavior, and Immunity (2020).

8. Özdin, Selçuk, and Şükriye Bayrak Özdin. “Levels and predictors of anxiety, depression and health anxiety during COVID-19 pandemic in Turkish society: The importance of gender.” International Journal of Social Psychiatry (2020): 0020764020927051.

9. “New mental health resource launched to support frontline health workers.” cmha.bc.ca. 

https://cmha.bc.ca/news/mental-health-resource-frontline-workers/. Accessed 14 May 2020.

10. Brown, Scott. “COVID-19: B.C. spending $5 million on virtual mental health services.” Vancouver Sun. https://vancouversun.com/news/covid-19-b-c-announces-support-for-mental-health-during-pandemic/. Accessed 14 May 2020.

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