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Researchers track the pandemic's toll on health workers' mental health

A MARTINEZ, HOST:

Just a heads up, this next story discusses suicide. For the past few years, health care workers have kept working without a break through surge after surge of the pandemic, through countless deaths and endless staffing shortages. A recent study tracked the toll taken on their mental health. And it found a majority of American health care workers reporting symptoms that include depression and thoughts of suicide. In January, a traveling ICU nurse working in California's Bay Area went missing. And that's become a wake-up call for other nurses to address the growing crisis. NPR's Rhitu Chatterjee has their story.

RHITU CHATTERJEE, BYLINE: Joshua Paredes knew his friend Michael Odell was struggling. Michael had worked as an ICU nurse during the pandemic, moving between stints at hospitals in California and Minnesota. Joshua, who's also a nurse, says it's not that his friend complained about anything, but...

JOSHUA PAREDES: The stories that he told me that I kind of really started to notice that he's struggling.

CHATTERJEE: Like having to ask family members of vulnerable patients to leave.

PAREDES: I don't know if you've ever had to try to kick out one of those family members, but it's not easy. I have. It's a hard thing to tell somebody you need to leave. And that takes a toll.

CHATTERJEE: He says Michael also talked about having to watch so many patients die alone.

PAREDES: He was these patients - everything. He was there when they're dying, which is what we do. It's what we do. But it's not something we do every day, all day. Like, we're not sealing up body bags every day. And that's what the last couple of years have been like.

CHATTERJEE: And then Michael suffered two big personal losses last year. He and his boyfriend split up. And his mother died. He was in Minnesota at the time and getting treated for depression. Joshua didn't want his friend to be alone at such a vulnerable time.

PAREDES: So basically, I was just like, come to San Francisco.

CHATTERJEE: So last November, Michael moved in with Joshua and started a stint at Stanford Health. He seemed to be coping OK. But then on the morning of January 18, when Joshua came home from work around 7:30, Michael wasn't there. When he didn't respond to text messages and didn't answer his calls, Joshua called Michael's workplace. That's when he learned that his friend had left the ICU sometime around 4 a.m. to get something from his car. But he never came back. John LeBlanc is a nurse and a close friend of Michael's.

JOHN LEBLANC: When I found out that he left mid-shift, my first thought was he's in crisis because it's totally, completely out of character for him.

CHATTERJEE: Two days later, the authorities found Michael's body. While the investigation into his death is still ongoing, his friends think he died by suicide.

LEBLANC: It was a shock. And it's still kind of - you know, it's something we're grappling with.

CHATTERJEE: Michael's death has reverberated throughout the nursing community. Again, his friend, Joshua Paredes.

PAREDES: There's been people that reached out to me that I don't even know that didn't know Michael. They just want me to know, like, I worked on this unit. I experienced this. One person told me his co-workers had to wheel him to the emergency room from the ICU at that hospital because he was having a breakdown.

CHATTERJEE: A study published in January found that over 70% of health care workers in the United States are struggling with symptoms of depression and anxiety, nearly 40% with symptoms of PTSD. But, Joshua says...

PAREDES: We don't want to talk about it, (laughter) you know? We have a lot of shame involved in it.

CHATTERJEE: But word of Michael's disappearance and then his death seemed to break that wall of silence. It felt personal to health care workers, like nurse Sarah Warren in Florida.

SARAH WARREN: It's only a matter of time before this happens to another nurse.

CHATTERJEE: Sarah's had her own mental health struggles after working with COVID patients.

WARREN: I'd actually forgotten large pieces of 2020. And I had to speak to a therapist about this. And they told me that I most likely was suffering from symptoms of PTSD.

CHATTERJEE: Sarah didn't know Michael. But after she learned about his death, she connected with his close friends. They all wanted to take their grief and turn it into action to address their colleagues' mental health needs.

WARREN: We're in the process of hopefully creating a mental health movement dedicated to his memory, but also to those nurses that we've lost not only in the last two years, but in the last few decades.

CHATTERJEE: She says nurses have long been at a higher risk of suicide than the general population. She and Michael's friends want to change that. They know it's a huge task, and one that requires big investments from hospitals and lawmakers. But they also want to support nurses as soon as possible. Doctors have a dedicated crisis number they can call. They realized it was time that nurses and certified nursing assistants - or CNAs - had a number to call, too.

WARREN: Our goal is to create a, you know, peer-to-peer support line, almost like we're saving ourselves, where nurses and CNAs would be able to call a phone number and receive a listening ear. And it's someone who knows what they're going through.

CHATTERJEE: When a nonprofit that supports military veterans heard about this idea, they jumped on board to help. Sean Dalgarn is the executive director of Growing Veterans, which trains vets to provide emotional and informational help to their peers.

SEAN DALGARN: Peer support is meeting people where they're at, being a good listener, being a shoulder to lean on.

CHATTERJEE: A peer support specialist is someone recovering from mental illness. So they have the lived experience to support others with similar struggles. Studies have found widespread benefits from improvements in symptoms to making people more hopeful. Dalgarn says it's an effective early intervention.

DALGARN: So if you're able to access people in an early stage of, you know, whatever they're experiencing, then that's a crucial catch. You have to be able to address this at the lowest level before it becomes something that can, unfortunately, lead to suicide.

CHATTERJEE: Suicide prevention is a key focus for the new hotline for nurses. Michael Odell's friend, John LeBlanc, says it's why they're calling their project Don't Clock Out.

LEBLANC: The idea behind it is, don't clock out of life, you know?

CHATTERJEE: It may take a while to launch this crisis line, but already about 250 health care workers have signed up to provide support to their colleagues.

LEBLANC: We want nurses to realize that you're not alone. You don't have to check out early, you know? We're here to talk to you before you take those last drastic steps.

CHATTERJEE: Rhitu Chatterjee, NPR News.

(SOUNDBITE OF JOY WANTS ETERNITY'S "FROM EMBRACE TO EMBRACE")

MARTINEZ: If you or someone you know may be considering suicide, call the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 1-800-273-8255. Or text the word home to 741741.

(SOUNDBITE OF JOY WANTS ETERNITY'S "FROM EMBRACE TO EMBRACE") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Rhitu Chatterjee is a health correspondent with NPR, with a focus on mental health. In addition to writing about the latest developments in psychology and psychiatry, she reports on the prevalence of different mental illnesses and new developments in treatments.