Study finds 1 in 5 nurses want to quit their careers as pandemic takes extreme toll on mental health

Study finds 1 in 5 nurses want to quit their careers as pandemic takes extreme toll on mental health
U.S. Air Force 1st Lt. Ian Krug, left, a registered nurse with the 59th Medical Wing, stationed in Lackland Air Force Base, Texas, works with U.S. Air Force Capt. Ramil Labiran, right, a registered nurse with Brooke Army Medical Center, Fort Sam Houston, Texas, and Staff Sgt. LaShauna Brown, center, a medical technician and noncommissioned officer in charge of the pediatric intensive care unit of Walter Reed National Military Medical Center in Bethesda, Md., in a makeshift expansion of the intensive care unit at University Medical Center in El Paso, Texas, Nov. 16, 2020. U.S. Northern Command, through U.S. Army North, remains committed to providing flexible Department of Defense support to the Federal Emergency Management Agency in support of the whole-of-America COVID-19 response. (U.S. Army photo by Sgt. Samantha Hall)

While health care workers have been providing care for thousands across the country, little to no care is available for them—especially mental health care. In the past two years, hospitals nationwide struggled with a rise in hospitalizations due to the COVID-19 virus, alongside reports of continuous staff shortages. As unvaccinated individuals continue to fill hospitals and fight with health care professionals, exhaustion and lack of support have left health care workers struggling with their own problems. States with the highest COVID-19 infection and hospitalization rates were seeing more resignations than any others, Daily Kos reported.

In an effort to help community members and local caregivers facing stress and other issues, Seattle therapist Shelley Green started taking appointments with health care workers in fall 2020. Green, who felt fortunate that she could do her teletherapy work from the comfort of her home, offered therapy services free of charge.

During this time, she learned that health care workers were not only afraid of bringing the coronavirus home but felt unsupported and “left to die” by public officials. Most recently, Green told the Seattle Times these workers’ grief and pain had turned to anger, as people across the nation refuse to wear a mask or get vaccinated.

Green’s clients are not alone in how they feel. According to a study published in the Journal of General Internal Medicine on Thursday, repeated exposure to sickness and death, along with a sense of fear and anxiety during the pandemic, contribute to mental health issues of people in the workforce.

The study surveyed more than 500 frontline workers across 47 states between September 2020 and February 2021. While researchers didn’t formally diagnose the participants, they asked them to complete four standardized psychiatric assessments, a pandemic-specific questionnaire, and questions about their professions.

The study noted that more than half of frontline health care workers and about 40% of first responders, like firefighters and paramedics, say the pandemic has decreased their willingness or ability to stick with their careers. Additionally, one in five nurses say it’s “not at all likely” they’ll still be working in their field in five to 10 years; about 17% of first responders say the same.

“Everyone is quitting,” Laura Wood, a social worker at the Swedish Cherry Hill medical campus in Seattle, told the Seattle Times. She noted that nurses, emergency department technicians, respiratory therapists and social workers are leaving “left and right. Our staff is so burned out. We’re just so tired.”

Researchers hope that the survey and other data will allow for more resources and support to be available for health care workers.

“We don’t need to protect people from every aspect [of their jobs],” Dr. Rebecca Hendrickson, a physician and researcher at VA Puget Sound Health Care System and assistant professor of psychiatry and behavioral medicine at the University of Washington School of Medicine, said. Hendrickson helped lead the study published in the Journal of General Internal Medicine.

“If you can increase the amount of support people have … you can make a really big difference in people’s experiences and people’s ability to recover and cope effectively with the trauma they’re experiencing as part of their job.”

But this news is not new, as health care workers have been pleading for help for months.

Multiple studies have found that health care workers are feeling burnout and stress at accelerated rates due to the pandemic. Since the start, health care workers have expressed that hospitals are not only overcrowded but short-staffed, with many nurses and others having to make quick and difficult decisions, including who to treat first, Daily Kos reported.

The study also found that more than 12% of health care workers, and nearly 20% of first responders, reported thinking about hurting themselves or that they would be better off dead at least several days during the past two weeks.

“It was just kind of overwhelming and a red flag,” Hendrickson said. “We have an urgent need to address these issues both because there’s just a really high level of suffering and distress … and we have a moral obligation as a society to address this type of suffering in people who have worked hard to protect all of us during this pandemic.”

Many health care workers feel a sort of stigma about taking care of themselves because they feel as though they have a duty to help others, Green noted. So even as they experience burnout they continue to work, to the detriment of their own mental health.

“She was like, ‘It’s just so hard for us. We’re always the last ones to seek what we need because we see ourselves as providing what other people need,’” Green said about one person she talked to.

Health care workers need our support. No one should feel like they have been “left to die,” especially those who are working day and night to support the well-being of others. If you have any ideas about how to support local health care workers, drop a comment below.

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