More than half of public health workers reported experiencing symptoms of mental health conditions, according to a new study, a toll that disproportionately falls on those who spent most of their time treating patients suffering from COVID-19.
The study, to be published in the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s (CDC) Morbidity and Mortality Weekly Report, found nearly a third of the 26,000 health care workers polled suffered from symptoms of depression in the last two weeks. Three in 10 reported suffering from anxiety, and more than a third say they have experienced symptoms of post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD).
Eight percent, or about one in twelve, told researchers they experienced suicidal ideation.
All of the mental health conditions were more prevalent among public health workers under the age of 29, among those who worked more than 60 hours per week and among those who reported they were unable to take time off work.
The symptoms were particularly pronounced among those who spent most of their time in COVID-19 wards. Among public health workers who spent three-quarters of their time responding to the pandemic, nearly half reported symptoms of PTSD within the last two weeks alone and more than a third reported signs of depression and anxiety.
The CDC researchers said stress-inducing events like the coronavirus pandemic can undermine the public health workforce at exactly the time when they are most essential.
“Increases in adverse mental health symptoms among workers have been linked to increased absenteeism, high turnover, lower productivity, and lower morale, which could influence the effectiveness of public health organizations during emergencies,” the researchers wrote.
The report found nearly three-quarters of all public health workers felt overwhelmed by work. One in 8 reported receiving job-related threats, in an echo of abuse hurled at health care workers early on in the pandemic. And almost a quarter said they had felt bullied, harassed or threatened because of their work.
Public health care workers are more likely to have experienced traumatic events or stressors during the pandemic than are members of the general population. More than a quarter reported losing a loved one, and more than 10 percent reported they had been diagnosed with COVID-19 themselves.
The CDC researchers surveyed 26,174 public health workers from state, tribal, local and territorial health departments over a three-week period in late March and early April of 2020, as the pandemic began.