Frontline workers are facing a mental health crisis: 'We're really only seeing the tip of the iceberg'

As the coronavirus crisis continues, the stress and trauma of working directly with those who have fallen ill have led to reports of frontline workers dying by suicide—a trend one expert says may only be “the tip of the iceberg.”

Yahoo Life spoke with Dr. Jen Hartstein, Yahoo Life Mental Health Contributor and practicing psychologist, about the unique set of mental health challenges frontline workers, like doctors, nurses, EMTs and others who help keep things running, are facing during the coronavirus outbreak.

“It’s easy to forget when we’re all feeling overwhelmed and anxious that the frontline workers are taking on the bulk of it and feeling equally overwhelmed and experiencing the same trauma—sometimes more—than the rest of us,” says Hartstein.

“Many of the symptoms that they’re showing really are commensurate with traumatic distress, traumatic disorders, post-traumatic stress disorder, and we have to be aware of how that’s going to play out over time,” she says. “As we come out of crisis mode, we’re really going to have to be present and ready for these people to support them as they struggle with reintegrating into society and into their real lives.”

Hartstein says that not everyone who dies by suicide has a history of mental illness, which is why we have to be extra attentive at this time to the needs of frontline workers around us.

“It’s a misconception to think that we need a diagnosis in order to die by suicide or in order to really struggle with PTSD,” says Hartstein.

“When we experience trauma—as many of us are and as the frontline workers are—that changes our brain chemistry, that changes how we react in the world and it can lead to increased intensity of emotions,” she says. “We really have to keep our eye on these people and be there to support them.”

If you’re a frontline worker who is struggling, Hartstein urges you to seek support.

“The first thing you have to do is not be afraid to ask for help. Don’t be afraid to go to a boss, a colleague, a family member and say ‘hey, I’m feeling overwhelmed and I’m really struggling.’ It is a stronger move to ask for help than it is to suffer in silence,” says Hartstein.

Resources available include the Crisis Text Line, the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline, as well as various virtual therapy options.

The Crisis Text Line recently announced the launch of For the Frontlines, a service dedicated to supporting frontline workers during the coronavirus crisis. For the Frontlines can be accessed free of charge by texting FRONTLINE to 741741.

If you or someone you know are experiencing suicidal thoughts, call 911, or call the National Suicide Prevention Hotline at 1-800-273-8255 or text HOME to the Crisis Text Line at 741741.

For the latest coronavirus news and updates, follow along at https://news.yahoo.com/coronavirus. According to experts, people over 60 and those who are immunocompromised continue to be the most at risk. If you have questions, please reference the CDC’s and WHO’s resource guides. 

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