The Mental Health Cost of Covid-19 is Just Beginning
It’s 12 pm and I have about two more hours before I begin prepping for tonight’s shift. The last month and half was a whirlwind and I find myself trying to process what on earth just happened. One doesn’t have to look hard for news clips of doctors, nurses and healthcare workers dressed in hazmat suits with respirators.
It’s easy to clap at 7pm for all the healthcare heroes every night in NYC. But beyond these appreciated gestures, let us not forget that there is another tragedy brewing.
When Covid-19 hit my hospital in the Bronx, the surge was brutal. I saw my Emergency Medicine colleagues work extremely hard. My unit was less busy as families were rightly concerned about bringing their children in. My team and other doctors from other ED units would come in to help the ER Covid teams especially when emergencies were called overhead. I saw first hand how quickly patients deteriorated. I had never seen anything like it before. These were some of the sickest patients we had ever seen.
To add to the situation, the volume was high. Units had to be converted into ICUs to manage the surge. My team and other teams took on several tasks. We came to the emergencies that were called overhead, helped with simple procedures; we placed orders and did perhaps the most difficult task of all: speaking to the families on the phone. The phones constantly rang. Terrified families tearfully asked for updates. Many were unprepared for the discussions that followed. Due to concerns of worsening the spread of Covid-19, families were prohibited from coming to the Emergency room. It was an unfortunate but extremely necessary step. But a tragic consequence was that families were unable to process what their loved ones were going through. End-of-life discussions, decisions to intubate, to perform life-saving measures such as CPR—discussions that should happen in-person with the family were done on the phone. The last time they saw their loved ones, many were just short of breath; now they were on the brink of being intubated or worse. They could not see the quick deterioration. They could not see the efforts of the doctors and nurses to fight to keep the patient alive. And worse yet, many could not say goodbye in person. Many of these patients died alone without their loved ones. With the current lockdown measures, funerals are postponed.
So what becomes of these families when they are unable to grieve properly, unable to come together and unable to even say a proper goodbye? How does one grieve when the grieving process is derailed? And what of the healthcare workers? What about those of us who have witnessed such a high rate of death crammed into a span of a few weeks? To see death on such a scale, to constantly speak to families and deliver bad news while working long hours—surely one cannot think that there will be no mental and emotional repercussions. There is a sense of fear, guilt, helplessness and exhaustion.
As I write this, I can still hear the cries and the quivering voices of the families I spoke with. These conversations will haunt me. There’s talk of PTSD and depression on the rise. Hotlines are in place for healthcare workers to reach out. But the psychological burden of taking care of such patients has taken its toll. On April 26th, a New York City Emergency room physician committed suicide after working the frontlines. On April 24th, a new Bronx EMT committed suicide after bearing witness to the death and suffering Covid-19 brought. While these are the first, they surely and unfortunately will not be the last.
So what is the church to do? Where is the church in all of this? James 1:27 states “Religion that God our Father accepts as pure and faultless is this: to look after orphans and widows in their distress and to keep oneself from being polluted by the world.” I love how James touches on the abstract and the practical. We should always seek God and to be more like Him. Study His word! Spend time in His presence! Allow the Spirit to sanctify you! But in your spiritual journey do not forget those around you.
My church paid for the night staff to have a meal. The staff were incredibly touched and surprised a church would do such a thing. Why the surprise? Shouldn’t the response be, “Of course they would, they are Christians”? We can’t expect to share the Gospel effectively if our lives do not match it. The church must reach out to the suffering: provide meals, pray and comfort those who have lost so much. Check in on those feeling isolated and alone. Bring relief however you can. For churches who have frontliners in their congregations, I beg you, do not downplay or dismiss the mental trauma. Listen to them. Pray over them and with them. Do not allow them to feel as though they are alone. PTSD and Depression are real. Please do not tell them they need more faith and rebuke them. They have wounds. Help heal those wounds. Help them seek help. There should be no condemnation for those reaching out for help—especially from Christ followers.
This pandemic will leave no shortage of orphans, widows, widowers, wounded and broken people. The battle isn’t over and, at times, it seems insurmountable. But if God is for us, who can be against us?
For want of comforting words, I will leave you with the words from one of my favorite hymns: “And though the wrong seems oft so strong, God is the ruler yet”. God be with us.