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PAHO Director on mental health impact of COVID-19 pandemic on health workers


by Kevon Browne

St. Kitts and Nevis (WINN): Ahead of International Nurses Day, Director of the Pan American Health Organization (PAHO), Dr Carissa F. Etienne, said securing proper mental health resources for frontline workers, especially in healthcare, is essential.

The emphasis on the mental health of healthcare workers, who remained on the frontlines of a pandemic that, according to new estimates by the World Health Organisation (WHO), claimed nearly 15 million people in the last two years, stems from the findings in a COVID-19 Healthcare Workers Study.

“The COVID-19 Healthcare Workers Study showed that almost one-quarter of health workers who were interviewed in 2020 presented symptoms of a depressive episode, and as many as 15 percent reported ideas about committing suicide,” said the PAHO director in her opening remarks of the May 4 COVID-19 press briefing.

Dr Ettienne reported that mental health services for healthcare workers are lacking in some countries, including Brazil, Guatemala and Columbia, where one in ten in the health sector had symptoms of severe depression.

“Today, nurses shoulder the dual burden of caring for COVID patients and catching up those who have missed routine health checkups over the past two years. These overlapping stressors cause someone to move away from their home areas, leaving hospitals and health centres drastically understaffed. In one global nursing study, four percent of nurses even said that they intend to leave the profession because of the pandemic.”

Dr Ettienne continued, “In a study done in the Caribbean, PAHO found that 45 percent of nurses left their jobs for better working conditions. Countries or territories individually and in partnership with PAHO are making efforts to address this issue. Nursing associations are calling for countries to provide mental health services in health centres to take care of medical workers’ mental health.”

PAHO is introducing a self-care course explicitly catered to healthcare workers shortly, and other countries have started deploying means of addressing the mental health concerns of those in healthcare.

According to the PAHO, the COVID-19 pandemic exposed underinvestment in human resources in the health sector and a lack of systems with information on the deployment, makeup, and attributes of interprofessional health teams.

PAHO further reported that countries found it difficult to hire, deploy, protect, and retain health workers, including psychosocial support for frontline workers.

In celebration of International Nurses Day on May 12, 2022, PAHO calls for strengthening the nursing workforce collectively.

PAHO suggested these steps to National authorities and policymakers in the region:

Investments in training and employing nurses are cost-effective.

Globally, 70% of the health and social workforce are women.

The Region of the Americas faces a shortage of health workers, especially nurses. Investment in training and more jobs will improve availability. Labour policies to protect workers and improve working conditions.

Educational spaces and clinical practice should be reviewed and regulated to ensure that future nursing professionals are qualified to take on greater responsibilities in the workplace.

Working conditions and tax incentives must be analysed and improved to increase the hiring and retention of nursing professionals.

PAHO also launched a Commission on Mental Health and COVID-19 with the ultimate objective to prepare guidelines and recommendations aimed at reducing the impact on mental health caused by the pandemic and the related suffering in the region’s population.

The five areas of focus are recovering from the pandemic and promoting mental health as a priority, the mental health needs of vulnerable populations, integrating mental health into universal health coverage, financing, and promoting the prevention of mental health conditions.


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