“In the same way this pandemic has brought up grief, distress and the experience of isolation for other members of the community, [healthcare workers] are also going through that ourselves. It’s compounded for some working in emergency departments and intensive care, who are also managing the disability and death of people as a result of COVID-19.”
More than 15 per cent of Victoria’s new coronavirus infections are among healthcare workers, according to figures released this week, and 1800 were reportedly infected as of August 8. When the Black Dog Institute released an app last week to help medical workers connect with mental health support it was downloaded 1200 times in a few days.
Many in the health sector are loath to reach out, according to the Black Dog Institute’s chief psychiatrist, Associate Professor Sam Harvey, who hopes giving health workers access to a way to do it discreetly will help.
“Health workers are uniquely bad at asking for help when they need it. It’s sort of ingrained in the training: illness is something that happens to other people not us,” says Dr Harvey, who also leads the Workplace Mental Health Research Program at the UNSW School of Psychiatry.
“We know lots of healthcare workers are really struggling at the moment, we know from the literature coming out of places where COVID has been surging for longer that it puts an awful lot of strain on them and obviously an awful lot have mental health symptoms of feeling overwhelmed.
“Evidence suggests one in 10 end up with longer-term mental health conditions from working on the front line in a pandemic,” Dr Harvey said.
The thing that keeps you going is the people you work with, these amazing people who keep turning up.
Dr Simon Judkins, Austin Hospital
Dr Simon Judkins, acting director of the Austin Hospital, said doctors had the advantage of at least “getting out of the house and going to work”, but that “right now is a particularly stressful point”.
“It’s dark when you leave for work and dark when you get home and you spend your day dressed in plastic … People are getting worn out, some people are getting COVID infections contracted in the work environment, there is the never-ending angst.
“The thing that keeps you going is the people you work with, these amazing people who keep turning up,” he said.
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He said Black Dog’s The Essential Network (or TEN) app, which was developed by healthcare professionals to help others obtain quick access to evidence-based resources and specialists, and which the organisation believes could be adapted for the wider community, would make it easier for doctors to get help as it removes the perceived stigma of accessing care at work.
Dr Kinder says she would definitely download the Black Dog app: “One of the positives I’ve seen in the pandemic is at least at the junior level there’s a lot of collegiality and looking out for peers and colleagues in the health sector, and a lot of open and frank discussion around the psychological impacts … Increasing opportunities to find resources is really important.”
Wendy Tuohy is a Sunday Age senior writer.