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Growing Concern About Mental Health of Coronavirus Frontline Workers

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The following article was originally published May 13, 2020, and republished through a collaboration with KPCC and LAist.

Story by Robert Garrova

As the coronavirus pandemic lingers on, mental health experts say we should be paying close attention to the psychological impacts on first responders and healthcare workers.

Captain Scott Ross, who heads the L.A. County Fire Department's behavioral health peer support program, said since the pandemic started, the unit is getting more calls from first responders.

"There's concerns — concerns about not only doing the job, seeing all the things that we see, but are we going to bring this home to our families?" Ross said.

Many health care workers who interact with clients in nursing homes are also anxious about bringing the virus home with them, said Kim Evon, executive vice president of SEIU Local 2015, which represents thousands of skilled nursing facility workers.

Paramedics wearing facemasks work behind an ambulance at the Garfield Medical Center in Monterey Park on March 19, 2020. | Frederic J. Brown/AFP/Getty Images
Paramedics wearing facemasks work behind an ambulance at the Garfield Medical Center in Monterey Park on March 19, 2020. | Frederic J. Brown/AFP/Getty Images

"They are both in environments where they're witnessing people dying in our skilled nursing facilities at an alarming rate... and (there's) this overwhelming fear of bringing it home to their loved ones," she said.

That fear became a reality for one union member whose asthmatic daughter became infected, Evon said.

"Her daughter was telling her she was afraid she was going to die," Evon said. "And she has to go back to work."

Mental health experts say this prolonged stress environment will have a lasting impact.

"There's probably going to be people who develop psychological disorders, like depression and anxiety and post-traumatic stress disorder," said Dr. Joshua Morganstein, who chairs an American Psychiatric Association committee focused on disaster and trauma.

Morganstein recommends borrowing the military idea of "battle buddies" for frontline workers, which would mean pairing people up to look out for one another's mental well-being.

With no end to the pandemic in sight, Morganstein said it will also be important for organizations to give frontline workers time to recover, along with making sure basic safety needs like personal protective equipment are provided.

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