COVID-19 Response Plan: Essential Workers and Complex Trauma

May 18, 2020

Complex Trauma and First Responders: How Essential Workers and Medical Professionals Are At Even Greater Risk During the Coronavirus Pandemic
Part 3: Coronavirus Response Plan
By Dr. Sylvia Gearing and Chris Gearing

Despite the horrifying physical effects of the coronavirus, the pandemic is also having a devastating effect on the mental health of some of our most critical professionals. A few weeks ago, a front-line emergency room physician, Dr. Lorna Breen, took her own life. Dr. Breen was the director of one of the busiest emergency rooms in New York City, but her family reported that she was psychologically overwhelmed by what she was experiencing in treating coronavirus patients. The tragedies she witnessed every day may have forced her into a chronic state of psychological helplessness. She told her father, a fellow physician, about her experiences and the enormous mental anguish she was experiencing in the days and weeks after the pandemic struck New York City. She took the loss of each patient to heart and grieved her inability to do more to save them. Eventually, the burden became too much. Tragically, she took her own life likely due to the overwhelming trauma she was experiencing. Truly a hero, Dr. Breen tried to save as many lives as she could before the psychological damage of the pandemic took its toll.

Trauma is a cruel condition. It is unforgiving, insidious, and savage to its victims. Research has proven that anyone can be put in a series of circumstances that breaks down their ability to cope and remain resilient. When the trauma is extreme, unrelenting, and inescapable, even the strongest minds can falter under the pressure. The impact can be especially harmful when we are defeated in an area of our life where we usually find success and are regularly effective.

Here are some of the ways trauma is impacting our front line professionals every day:

Defined By Daily Routines: For many of us who enjoy and value our work, the ups and downs of our careers can be mood altering and life defining to a certain degree. But with this pandemic interrupting every single aspect of normal daily life, we have been stripped of our predictable schedules and familiar daily routines in the workplace. For many of us, our entire work life has changed dramatically. We now work in scarcely populated offices, in overcrowded emergency rooms, in our homes with our children in the next room, or in some tragic cases – we have been deprived of our ability to work entirely. Our minds love predictability and order. We thrive in an environment that is fairly reliable and dependable, and routines are psychologically stabilizing and lend a certain sense of control. If there are challenges, those challenges do not overwhelm our skills to handle them. The current pandemic has introduced an unprecedented disruption into our worlds which in turn has increased our anxiety to new levels. Unfortunately, our world will continue to change for the foreseeable future.

Tidal Wave of Crises: First responders are used to dealing with crises. It’s their job after all. They respond to the alarm, and head toward the disaster when others run away and hide. However, the COVID-19 pandemic challenges are fundamentally different from what they are accustomed to. In some parts of the country, hospitals and emergency rooms are overwhelmed with coronavirus cases. Patients are dying before they are even wheeled out of the ambulance. Desperate to save them, these first responders regularly experience defeat after defeat. Some of these scenes rival the horror of the bloodiest battlefields of history. This unprecedented pandemic can tax even the sturdiest of souls. Unrelenting stress could potentially break anyone’s sense of control or effectiveness. They must risk their own lives and safety to combat the epidemic on a daily basis. Many first responders and medical professionals were unprepared for the tidal wave of traumatizing moments sweeping into their work lives and potentially overtaking their resolve.

Greater Exposure, Greater Risk: Contrary to popular belief, the daily diet of suffering and tragedy that first responders deal with does not fortify them against future trauma. In fact, it actually increases their likelihood of developing trauma conditions or Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) in the future. With this sudden and violent outbreak across America, many of our first responders may no longer be able to cope with what they deal with day to day. Particularly in areas like New York City with extreme outbreaks of COVID-19 cases, trauma is almost inevitable for many first responders and medical professionals. Currently, researchers estimate approximately 32% of front-line professionals may be suffering from PTSD. For comparison, the average rates for American adults to develop PTSD at some point in their lifetimes is approximately 7 to 12%.

If you or a loved one may be experiencing trauma from the coronavirus pandemic, please reach out to a licensed mental health professional today. Trauma can be overwhelming to even the strongest of individuals, but modern treatment methods like Dialectical Behavior Therapy and Cognitive Behavioral Therapy have been proven to be extremely effective in the treatment of trauma conditions. Please contact our offices today to schedule an initial consultation.

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