Health workers around the world have been experiencing depression, anxiety and post-traumatic stress disorder during the COVID-19 pandemic and they urgently need support, a recent study finds.

A systemic review, published in March in PLOS One, found that 22% of health workers in 21 countries reported depression, anxiety and PTSD. One in five of them said they had developed a mental disorder during the pandemic.Woman health worker in mask

“These individuals need rapid support,” Nathaniel Scherer, BSc, MSc, a study co-author, told The Nation’s Health. “This will, of course, include direct mental health intervention, but we also need to understand the factors contributing to this increased prevalence so these underlying factors can be addressed and stressors alleviated.”

Researchers with the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine’s  International Centre for Evidence in Disability examined 65 studies in 21 countries  involving over 97,000 health care workers between December 2019 and August 2020. They found that workers in the Middle East reported the highest rates of depression, anxiety and PTSD, at about 35%. They were followed by workers in South Asia, 29%; Europe, 22%; East Asia, 19%; and North America, 19%.

“The estimate from the Middle East may well be higher because the region experienced a higher caseload of COVID-19,” Scherer said.

A spring Washington Post-Kaiser Family Foundation poll found that 62% of U.S. health care workers were experiencing stress from working during the pandemic and that it had harmed their mental health. An earlier poll during the pandemic found that 30% of health workers were considering leaving the profession.

A March COVID-19 relief package signed by President Joe Biden included $20 million for a campaign to encourage frontline health workers to seek treatment for mental health issues, $80 million to teach workers strategies to reduce suicide and burnout, and $40 million for grants to promote mental and behavioral health for workers.

The global findings in PLOS One “present a concerning outlook for health care workers,” said the study authors, who called for greater mental health support for staff.

“The response from policymakers and service providers must be decisive and swift, addressing mental health concerns in this group before long-term health and social impacts are realized,” they said in the study. 

In the U.S., workers who are experiencing mental health distress can call the U.S. Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services’ free, confidential mental health helpline ) for treatment referral at 1-800-487-4889.

Photo: Asma Sultana works as a senior nurse in charge of the intensive care unit for COVID-19 patients at a Narayanganj, Bangladesh, hospital in May 2020. Image by Fahad Abdullah Kaizer, courtesy UN Women via Flickr.