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Editor’s note: This story focuses on suicide and other topics related to psychiatric distress. If you or a loved one is in crisis, resources are available here.
Those who work in health care are often the victims of mental illness themselves. In early 2020, the industry became crushed under the COVID-19 pandemic that neither health care workers nor society were adequately prepared to bear. As turmoil continued, the damage to health care workers became more severe.
Compassion fatigue set in. The long hours, the brutal conditions, the constant presence of death, and the fear that this relentless virus would inevitably infect them caused many veterans of the industry to leave.
As of late 2021, nearly 75% of health care workers reported exhaustion, depression, sleep disorders and PTSD. About 45% of health care workers feel they have inadequate emotional support. It is estimated that by the end of 2022, the American health care system will have a shortage of 1.1 million nurses. And finally: The suicide rate of health care workers is 2.2 times higher than the general population. Who heals the healers?
Depression and anxiety have afflicted me my entire life. Through decades of treatment, my condition was in remission when I made the decision to enter the health care field in January of 2020 as a certified medical assistant.
Like many newcomers, I had ambitions of helping others and society. These dreams were quickly dashed as I discovered a field of underappreciated, overworked and underpaid workers. I was bullied and harassed. My mental health was gradually strained, to the point of my suicide attempt last year.
I was physically assaulted by a higher-ranking colleague at my former workplace. This was the breaking point for me. My psychiatrist secured a short leave for me, and I took advantage of the organization’s employee assistance program. Meanwhile, despite an investigation into the incident, the colleague who assaulted me was cleared and kept their position and title. I pondered if I had made a mistake entering health care, and whether the incident was my fault.
In the fall of 2021, I awoke to a panic attack. A cloud of bleak hopelessness and loss descended. I was not thinking clearly. I started taking pills. I wanted to die because I wanted relief.
Midway through my attempt, my cat Mia walked into my room. I could see the curiosity in her eyes, as some part of me reminded myself that I needed to clean her litter box, sparking a chain of thoughts that kept me alive: Who would take care of Mia? Who would look after my aging mother? What would killing myself do to her? To my family, my friends?
I stopped, and called 911. It was a hard three days in the hospital. But I am lucky; I survived.
The day I was released from the hospital, a managing nurse at the clinic called me. She did not ask how I was doing. Instead, she launched into a tirade of policy, telling me I would need a detailed note from the physicians who treated me to get my time in the hospital approved by Human Resources. I was in no shape to return to the hospital and ask them to fill out paperwork. Through tears, I resigned. I felt disillusioned and abandoned.
My recovery was slow: days of constant sleeping, profound fatigue while awake, psychogenic seizures (nonepileptic seizures caused by stress), panic attacks and a constant inner voice telling me that everything was my fault, that I did not belong in health care. But with the skills of my psychiatrist and a new psychotherapist, I began to crawl out of the hole.
Most medical facilities offer some degree of mental health support for their employees, typically free of cost. These programs range from relaxation and mindfulness exercises to access to direct care with a mental health professional, and even the granting of medical leave if needed. These programs may be well-intended, but do not go far enough.
Nearly a third of health care workers are concerned about consequences or retaliation if they seek mental health assistance from their employer. Many doctors fear seeking mental health treatment, as divulging doing so can be a barrier to licensing.
And therein is the problem: Despite an industry’s attempt to take care of its own, the draining environment all too often remains. America has shown its weak hand in caring for the general public, and also for the workers who have devoted their time, energy and lives to keeping our society healthy.
The problem the health care industry faces can be fixed. Patients must be engaged and taught to be proactive advocates of their health. Employers should supply greater access to mental health treatment for workers. This requires more trained providers in the field and access more readily available. This also requires more dedicated facilities to treat people with mental illness.
I am fortunate. My mental health has greatly improved. I am returning to work very soon, as a medical assistant at a new company. I’ve had no recent symptoms. I am eager to give my calling another chance.
I personally believe mental illness cannot be cured but rather learned to live with. My health care team has given me the tools to help myself; I have family and friends cheering for me; I have developed strong coping mechanisms; and I feel confident and encouraged to face the future. Still, dire conditions remain in health care.
America is experiencing a mental health crisis, amid all of the other challenges that face our society. Those who are trained and devoted to care for those with mental health issues are succumbing to the crisis themselves. The workforce is shrinking, keeping mental health care further out of reach. The situation must change, quickly.
If health care continues down its current path, a far greater tragedy awaits us. I hope that it does not.
Andrick Schall is a lifelong resident of Seattle. He is a Certified Medical Assistant, and enjoys writing about health care.