“They started sprinting in a marathon, [and the virus kept] moving the goal posts,” says Dr. Arpan Waghray, chief medical officer of Providence Behavioral Health and executive medical director at Swedish. He expects to see an increased level of diagnosed post-traumatic stress syndrome in health care workers over the next one to three years. “You’re finishing over and over again. … I don’t think the impact is going to go away,” Waghray says.
Typically, relationships with colleagues offer some form of camaraderie and support. But many forms of bonding are off the table for now. Samantha Conley, a neuroscience acute care nurse at Harborview who sits on a staffing committee, can’t chat over lunch with co-workers about the hard things she’s seen, or meet colleagues’ kids or spouses. “I hadn’t realized how important those things were until I couldn’t do them anymore,” she says.
Health care workers with families are especially overwhelmed, Conley says. The pandemic is straining their relationships at home, and work usually means a long day of being short-staffed. “Somebody you need is not going to be there, and you’re just going to have to make do, when it feels like it’s been a year of making do,” she says.
Though trauma is widespread, many nurses and doctors Crosscut spoke with say stigmas about mental illness and mental health in the medical field complicate hospitals’ efforts to assess it and intervene. Not only do physicians and nurses fear looking vulnerable, but some health workers worry that seeking help might damage their employability. Licensing and credentialing often require people to answer questions about their history of mental illness, and workers are skeptical of whether using company resources will result in notes in their permanent file.
“Nurses, we know the importance of mental health, because we see it. We have a lot of patients who have mental health issues. But it’s really hard for nurses to turn that around and shift it towards ourselves and our own mental health,” says Casie L., a critical care nurse at a Puget Sound hospital.