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Story | Research
19 May 2020

‘PTSD is real risk for COVID-19 frontline workers’, says Carter Center expert as QF/WISH hold global panel

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Dr. Janice Cooper says the strain of dealing with a pandemic can cause healthcare professionals “extreme anxiety, or even trigger PTSD”.

Photograph: Maridav/Shutterstock

Dr. Janice Cooper of The Carter Center warns healthcare professionals face huge psychological challenges as they battle the pandemic

Mental health support for those in the frontline of treating COVID-19 patients will be “critical” both during and after the pandemic, according to a health expert who has seen first-hand the toll that disease can take on a nation.

Dr. Janice Cooper, Senior Project Advisor – Global Mental Health at The Carter Center, was among the speakers in a recent online edition of Qatar Foundation’s Education City Speaker Series, held in collaboration with the World Innovation Summit for Health (WISH), which opened up international perspectives on COVID-19’s impact on mental wellbeing.

Dr. Janice Cooper, Senior Project Advisor – Global Mental Health at The Carter Center.

She has extensive experience of working with healthcare professionals who suffered from Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) in Liberia following the Ebola outbreak which struck the country in 2014-15, and said: “It demonstrated how healthcare workers are faced with enormous challenges.

“The first is the risk of contagion; the second is whether you have enough supplies and equipment to keep yourself safe; and then there is the question of how you let go of what you have experienced during a shift when you get home, and how you keep your family safe.

Access to mental health services and support during and after the response to a crisis like this are critical for everyone, but particularly for healthcare workers.

Dr. Janice Cooper

“All of these things are of concern to healthcare workers, and can lead to them having extreme anxiety, or even trigger PTSD. Many of them feel traumatized. Access to mental health services and support during and after the response to a crisis like this are critical for everyone, but particularly for healthcare workers, if we expect to continue to function and to function well.”

Dr. Cooper believes many healthcare professionals may find it difficult to accept that they are struggling to cope mentally with the strain that being in the eye of the COVID-19 storm brings. “It’s even harder for a mental health provider to admit they have psychological issues or mental health issues, or that they are experiencing trauma, or that when they get home they suddenly break down.

“When you have worked a long and hard shift in the current situation, how do you disengage? It’s much harder for healthcare workers to come home after work and feel they haven’t done anything to put their families at risk.”

In the post-pandemic rebuilding stage, Dr. Cooper believes that healthcare systems around he world will have the opportunity to “recognize the areas that need more than just scaffolding”, and among these is mental health.

You can’t build back better without focusing on mental health services. I believe it’s impossible.

Dr. Janice Cooper

“You can’t build back better without focusing on mental health services,” she said. “I believe it’s impossible.

“Building back better is about recognizing that, while we all have resilience, we can’t drain the tank so much that we’re unable to come back better. Resilience isn’t infinite, and while we can draw on it, we also need to be restorative.

“In a response, what we know is that all countries throw money at the issue at the time and, five years later, if you haven’t done something about your healthcare system, you’re just not that lucky. It’s really important to take advantage of the opportunity this provides. In Liberia, our build-back-better strategy after Ebola was to deal with immediate needs while also not forgetting to build a mental health system that could withstand the next shock. And we did that.

As we move forward developmentally, one of the main challenges is whether the world will really insist there is no health without mental health.

Dr. Janice Cooper

“But as we move forward developmentally, one of the main challenges is whether the world will really insist there is no health without mental health, or go back to business as usual with just a few organizations being focused on it. I’m optimistic, because we have all now had the experience of fears and worries and concerns, some of which could become more serious.”

Mental health services need to be at the heart of the world’s post-pandemic rebuilding efforts, according to Dr. Cooper. Photograph: wavebreakmedia/Shutterstock

Founded by former US President Jimmy Carter and his wife Rosalynn, one of the goals of The Carter Center is to eradicate and eliminate disease. Speaking about the shared aims of the organization and WISH – Qatar Foundation’s global health initiative – Dr. Cooper said: “Through being at the last WISH Summit in 2018, I had the opportunity to meet some really wonderful and very diverse groups who are working on so many different aspects of healthcare, including mental health.

“WISH has presented a tremendous opportunity for The Carter Center in terms of highlighting our own work as well as seeing the examples set by others in global health.”

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