First Responders and Frontline Healthcare Providers Need Us More Than Ever

As the nation has reached a troubling new milestone – more than 5 million reported cases of COVID-19 – hospitals are quickly reaching capacity in several major cities across various states. And while the spread of the virus continues, an equally worrisome, yet less talked about threat is quietly impacting our healthcare system – strains on the mental health of our frontline healthcare professionals and our vital first responders.

Our recent national survey of more than 500 frontline healthcare providers and first responders revealed 55% are concerned about their overall mental health. Forty-seven percent of healthcare providers described themselves as anxious, while 66% were concerned, 46% were worn out, and 19% said they were flat out scared.

While most states have managed to stay just ahead of capacity needs for hospital beds, we have seen lately a growing strain on hospital capacity and staffing. Doctors, nurses, and various specialists have been working day and night, pushing themselves to the limit to meet the needs of critically ill patients. The same can be said for first responders, who constantly put their own lives at risk to ensure the rest of us have immediate access to emergency care.

The unrelenting toll of this stress on frontline and first responders is incalculable. According to Dr. Charles Marmar, chair of the department of psychiatry and director of the PTSD research program at New York University, “Just like people get sick if they’re overexposed to this virus, people also become psychologically ill if they’re overexposed to the kinds of stressors that healthcare professionals deal with every day.” In fact, this type of pressure is likely a contributor to two prominent suicides by healthcare professionals, who became overwhelmed by the COVID-19 crisis.

And let us not forget the families of these professionals, who are also impacted. Concerns for the safety of loved-ones is very real. Besides the heightened risk of contracting the virus from family members who are on the frontlines, many are experiencing marital and parental difficulties.

Post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), depression, substance abuse, and suicidal ideation are real challenges for frontline health care providers and first responders. At CVN, we have extensive background treating the impacts of mental health conditions such as these from our work with military veterans and their families. And that is why we are now offering no-cost mental health resources to frontline healthcare providers, first responders, and their adult family members in seven cities, including New York City.

As we witness a resurgence of COVID-19 across many states in the U.S., we must take all necessary actions to help our frontline healthcare providers and first responders, who are under increasing stress and strains from their harrowing work in these uncertain conditions. They will be affected – this pandemic will take a heavy toll. They must rotate off of the frontline at some point for rest and relaxation. And families, they too will be challenged because the entire family system is impacted. While local and state budgets are strained, we should resist the tendency to reduce behavioral health care funding. This is a time to increase support for frontline workers and their families.

Mental and behavioral health support organizations should be more closely linked to frontline workers as a unique population with special cultural considerations and support services.

While the mental health challenges of COVID-19 and the very real economic challenges the pandemic has created are being felt across the nation, it is vitally important that we take the time to care for those who care for us.

Dr. Anthony M. Hassan is CEO and President of Cohen Veterans Network, which operates mental health clinics nationwide for veterans and military families.