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Critical Care Nurses Report Higher Levels Of Stress, Depression And Anxiety

May 1, 2021
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SCOTT SIMON, HOST:

Stress and mental health issues are always high among the nation's frontline health care workers, including critical care nurses. A new research that's out today confirms this, and other recent studies have shown just how much the pandemic has added to the strain. Here to talk about this now, NPR's health correspondent Rhitu Chatterjee. Rhitu, thanks for being with us.

RHITU CHATTERJEE, BYLINE: Happy to be here, Scott.

SIMON: What did the new study find?

CHATTERJEE: So they surveyed more than 700 critical care nurses and found that 40% were struggling with symptoms of depression and 60% had symptoms of anxiety. And this was before the pandemic. And the authors think this is because of work stress from things like staffing shortages and long shifts. Here's the study's author, Bernadette Melnyk at the Ohio State University.

BERNADETTE MELNYK: We've known for quite some time 12-hour shifts are related to poor health in nurses.

CHATTERJEE: And yet, you know, nurses continue to have 12-hour shifts.

SIMON: And the shifts have just gotten harder during the pandemic, haven't they?

CHATTERJEE: Oh, absolutely. I've been talking to nurses and doctors around the country, and the first thing they tell me is just the staggering numbers of very serious COVID patients they've had to treat and just how many of them have died. Here's Molly Sullivan. She's an ER nurse at Mount Sinai Hospital who says especially the early weeks of the pandemic were unrelenting.

MOLLY SULLIVAN: It's almost like cutting a snake off Medusa's head. You can chop it off, but two more grow back. And so you might feel as though you have now completed and hopefully stabilized a patient who is now intubated, but what you missed was that three more patients came in and couldn't be seen because you were helping to intubate somebody.

CHATTERJEE: And, you know, she says all of this has taken an emotional toll.

SULLIVAN: While we were in the midst of everything, it felt hopeless. It felt like life was never going to be normal again. I would never love my job again. It would only be a source of trauma and heartbreak.

CHATTERJEE: Every single health care worker I've spoken to recently said they have felt burnt out.

SIMON: And what did they say about what this kind of burnout feels like?

CHATTERJEE: So it's more than just exhaustion. They talked about feeling physically and emotionally drained. They also say that they feel cynical about their jobs, with little or no sense of personal accomplishment. One nurse who works at a hospital in Florida, Sarah Flanagan, she talked with me about feeling emotionally distant.

SARAH FLANAGAN: It's like a dissociative state that I was in where I just - it was like an out-of-body experience. And my husband even recognized it. He said I wasn't present for a lot of 2020.

CHATTERJEE: Flanagan says she's in therapy to help manage her anxiety and deal with insomnia and nightmares.

SIMON: And, Rhitu, if so many nurses and doctors feel burned out and they struggle with mental health, what are the implications for their patients?

CHATTERJEE: It has direct consequences, Scott. The study published today shows that poor mental health in nurses increases medical errors. So, you know, that affects you, me, anyone seeking medical care. And the other big implication here is that we might see a big exodus from the workforce, and some of that is already happening. The Florida nurse we just heard from has cut back her hours significantly, and she says many of her colleagues have quit.

SIMON: Is there a sense of how this can be changed to make things better for critical care nurses?

CHATTERJEE: Well, you know, you have to make their sort of work lives better. One solution the nurses propose is give them shorter shifts and hire more people. Also, they want their own wellness to be a priority. So Melnyk's research suggests that if health care workers think their employers care about their wellness, they're more likely to be in better mental and physical health.

SIMON: NPR's Rhitu Chatterjee, thanks so much.

CHATTERJEE: Thank you.

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