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Personal reflection: Mental distress in healthcare workers

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Medical Workers Stacking HandsDiagnosing mental distress in healthcare workers has become increasingly important as shortages of trained personnel grow and populations age. There’s a direct relationship between the average age of a country or county’s population and the level of health services they require – older people need more care. The aging of the population places dual pressures on the healthcare system because the pool of patients is growing, but not enough trained younger doctors are coming through the pipeline to both treat the growing population of patients and replace the older doctors who are retiring. One of the most prominent signs of mental distress in healthcare surfaced during the COVID-19 pandemic, during which rocketing health needs placed inordinate levels of stress on doctors, nurses, hospital administrators, and supportive healthcare staff.  I can relate to this personally because my husband is a senior consultant pediatrician in our community hospital. From day one, he faced a barrage of new challenges, both in the type of conditions that he had to deal with and with the unprecedented volumes of new cases each day. I think it’s fair to say that he came into the reality of healthcare during COVID with a strong and resilient approach. Even before the outbreak of COVID-19, he showed consistent work patterns regardless of the different life-affecting challenges he had to cope with each day. He took great measures to compartmentalize his professional work, put aside external pressures, and devoted himself exclusively to the tasks. This also allowed him to be himself while away from the workplace, enjoying the time he could spend at home and with our family. We made a conscious effort to emphasize a preventative approach to mental health versus waiting for mental distress to appear and then dealing with its consequences. It wasn’t always easy, but the effort provided a healthy framework for an otherwise chaotic reality.   COVID-19 put the natural ability to compartmentalize on hold for much of the time the virus rampaged through our community. I witnessed my husband engage in 24-36-48-hour activities that had life-saving consequences for dozens of children daily. I can say with some pride that our whole family pitched in to make our home environment as conducive to him getting as much rest as possible in the few brief hours of respite that the height of the pandemic allowed him. For his part, I think the engagement levels were so intense that he didn’t have time to think about himself. Just getting through a day was reward enough to keep him going into the next and the next.  Now that most of the horrors of the pandemic have been absorbed and digested, I and many of my friends who are either healthcare professionals or the family of healthcare workers are beginning to observe some patterns of behavior that are different from pre-COVID. It’s almost like much of our healthcare community has a special form of “emotional Long-COVID;” some of the unexpected effects of such intense pressures are only now starting to surface in displays that could be a result of delayed mental distress. The study, conducted by New York University’s Grossman School of Medicine researchers and published this week on the Healthcare-Brew website, examines information collected during healthcare workers’ therapy sessions in the earliest months of the COVID-19 pandemic. Utilizing the growing power of AI’s natural language processing (NPL) algorithm, it was instructed to pick out common phrases and themes from psychotherapy session transcripts. They then correlated these with the health records of the participants to associate any diagnoses of mental health issues such as mood disorders, anxiety, and depression. So far, in the early stages of the work, AI seems to be a valuable predictive tool that can catch stress burnout before it happens. This may be a very valuable mechanism for anyone caught in high-pressure situations that can lead to mental distress. Perhaps most importantly, the study indicates that there may be a way for healthcare providers to self-analyze with the help of AI tools that can identify when stress levels are starting to push them towards burnout. Doctors could become more confident that they were retaining their levels of control and skill in their day-to-day work, and any professionals treating them in managing the stress would be able to take the results of the AI interaction to shape a therapy.   I am by no stretch of the imagination an expert on what working with AI can produce, and it will take someone with a much deeper understanding of this area to fully explain what can be gleaned from this study. But even with my limited grasp of the subject, I can conclude that dedicated healthcare providers like my husband could benefit immediately both in their professional performance and private lives if the findings of this study should make their way to the light of day.
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