Study warns of high levels of depression and suicidal thoughts in health workers during pandemic

Washington, DC, January 13, 2022 (PAHO)- Health workers in 11 Latin American countries show elevated rates of depressive symptoms, suicidal thinking, and psychological distress, according to the results of a study led by the Pan American Health Organization (PAHO) in collaboration with the University of Chile and Columbia University.

The report, The COVID-19 HEalth caRe wOrkErs Study (HEROES) , shows that between 14.7% and 22% of health personnel interviewed in 2020 presented symptoms consistent with depressive episodes, while between 5 and 15% of personnel said they had thought about suicide. The study also reports that in some countries, only about a third of those who said they needed psychological care received it.

“The pandemic increased the burden on health personnel, and in countries where the health system collapsed, staff endured exhausting workdays and ethical dilemmas that impacted their mental health,” said Anselm Hennis, Director of PAHO’s Department of Noncommunicable Diseases and Mental Health. “The pandemic is not over. It is essential to care for those who care for us,” he stressed.

HEROES consisted of interviews with 14,502 health care workers in Argentina, Brazil, Bolivia, Chile, Colombia, Guatemala, Mexico, Peru, Puerto Rico, Venezuela, and Uruguay, and involved academics and researchers from dozens of institutions in those countries.

The need for emotional and economic support, concern about infecting family members, conflicts with families of infected persons under care, and changes in regular work duties were some of the main factors affecting the mental health of health personnel, the study noted.

On the other hand, trusting that health care institutions and governments could handle the pandemic, having the support of co-workers, and considering oneself a spiritual or religious person were mentioned as some of the protective factors.

“The pandemic increased stress, anxiety and depression among health care workers and revealed that countries have not developed specific policies to protect the mental health of health workers. This is a health deficit that needs to be settled,” said Rubén Alvarado, an academic in the mental health program of the Faculty of Medicine of the University of Chile and one of the principal authors of the study.

The study stresses the urgency to develop specific policies and actions that can protect the mental health of health workers. It recommends modifying the work environment and guaranteeing adequate working conditions. It also recommends providing decent salaries, stable contractual conditions and creating spaces where teams can talk in order to unburden themselves and engage in self-care practices.

The document also calls for support to be provided to health workers to care for children or elderly dependents, given that most are women and caregivers. It also recommends implementing guidelines to protect the mental health of staff in care facilities and making mental health services accessible.

“Two years into the pandemic and many workers are still not getting the support they need. This may cause them to develop different mental disorders in the coming years, and we need to be prepared,” warned Ezra Susser of Columbia University and another one of the study’s principal researchers.

Learning to care for oneself to care for others in order to prevent mental health problems and promote healthy lifestyles among emergency responders, PAHO today launched a free online course on self-care. The course enables participants to recognize work-related stress, identify risk and protective factors, detect warning signs of mental health problems, and incorporate self-care strategies to achieve healthy habits.

Source: PAHO