This article is part of State of Health, a series about how Michigan communities are rising to address health challenges. It is made possible with funding from the Michigan Health Endowment Fund.
The COVID-19 pandemic has caused a major spike in depression, anxiety, and other mental health issues across Michigan — and medical professionals are certainly not immune. Those on the frontlines are facing tremendous stress and trauma, and several new initiatives have sought to provide them much-needed support.
For the past 13 years, Dr. Srijan Sen, associate vice president for health sciences in the Michigan Medicine Department of Psychiatry, has been studying how stress and other mental health issues impact physicians. At the University of Michigan Sen Lab, research examines interactions between biological factors and stress in the development of depression. Even before the COVID-19 pandemic, ongoing studies found high rates of depression in U.S. and Chinese physicians.
Dr. Srijan Sen.
“How things are changing for them with COVID-19 is an important issue. Physicians’ wellbeing and mental health matters,” Sen says. “We know that unhealthy depression may make them not be able to provide high quality of care.”
Sen notes that COVID-19 compounds the usual stress physicians feel because of their heightened concern for patients, more patients dying under their care, lack of personal protective equipment (PPE), and fear that exposure to the virus puts them and their loved ones at risk. Data on those effects are still being collected. But Sen says anecdotes from Detroit-area hospitals confirm that frontline medical professionals struggled physically and mentally, especially during the pandemic’s peak in spring, when they worked long hours without PPE.
“In the U.S., we still don’t have a definitive answer. We’ve seen and heard high-profile reports of suicides, the most tragic outcomes, and other concerns of physicians’ mental health,” Sen says. “… Also, there was an element early on in the pandemic, a sense of health care workers and physicians being held as heroes. That might also have a really positive effect for physicians and frontline workers, but it probably isn’t sustainable.”
New support systems
Living up to heroic expectations does not always allow health care professionals to seek the help they need, notes Sarah Slamer-Wasil, director of development for Starr Commonwealth.
“If they believe they need to be superheroes, it puts a lot of pressure on. It almost doesn’t normalize that they have feelings, symptoms, and reactions,” she says. “Those professionals who are not able to stay for 24-hour shifts think there is something wrong with them. ‘I should be able to do this. Why am I exhausted [or] making mistakes?’ They start to struggle at home with personal relationships.”
Starr Commonwealth provides behavioral health services to patients at Children’s Hospital of Michigan. While working with these patients during the…