On 11 March 2020 the World Health Organization (WHO) declared the COVID-19 virus a pandemic. Just two months earlier, this novel coronavirus had been isolated in Wuhan (China). On March 3 the presence of COVID-19 was confirmed in Argentina and on March 7 the first death due to the virus was reported. On March 19 Argentina declared quarantine.
The psychological impact of COVID-19 pandemic is unprecedented. It has affected the population, especially health care professionals. In order to better understand the scope and repercussions of this issue, the Asociación Argentina de Psiquiatras (AAP) developed a self-administered, anonymous survey for health care professionals such as doctors, psychologists, nurses, social workers and occupational therapists.
1744 mental health care professionals completed the survey. Of those:
20.1% (n: 351) were mental health care workers work in public institutions, 46.6 % (n: 813) in private institutions and 33.3% (n:508) in both
67.9% of survey participants said they had presented with anxiety during the last week
36.4% presented with sadness; 43.4% with anhedonia, 45.7% with irritability and 67.4% noted sleep disturbances
41.6% had altered food intake. Results also showed an increase in the use of psychotropics (24.4%), alcohol (19.8%) and illegal substances (3,4%)
Almost half the respondents referred to having had trouble concentrating and, more worryingly, 4.5% had presented with suicidal ideation.
Researchers also noted differences between workplaces:
Those professionals working in public institutions scored higher in sadness, anhedonia, irritability and anxiety than those in private institutions.
They also tended to be more worried about their health and had more trouble concentrating.
Those mental health care workers who did not have access to Personal Protective Equipment (PPE) scored higher on sadness, hopelessness and anhedonia. Also, those who worked in institutions where COVID-19 protocols were not carried out accordingly (46.3%), scored higher in sadness, hopelessness, anxiety, sleep disturbances, altered concentration and decision making. These respondents were also more concerned about their health, had more intrusive thoughts about the COVID-19 pandemic and had more dreams and nightmares related to the event.
Finally, those who lived with family members belonging to risks groups or those with minors had higher scores in irritability, difficulty concentrating and concerns about health.
The COVID-19 pandemic has affected mental health care professionals significantly. They constitute a vulnerable group since they are at higher risk of contracting the disease, due to the shortage of personnel (due to an increasing number of infected individuals), but mainly because they are exposed to working in stressful conditions and in some cases without the appropriate PPE.
Given the present scenario, the AAP considers it essential that authorities develop intervention strategies to assist health care workers. It is especially important to identify those groups with additional psychosocial stressors or risk factors in order to intervene promptly. AAP also considers it pertinent to carry out future studies assessing PTSD in this group.
Authors: Dr Ricardo Corral, Teaching & Research Department Hospital Borda, President Asociacion Argentina de Psiquiatras
Dr. Julieta Ramirez, Hospital Borda, Capitulo Jovenes Psiquiatras, Asociacion Argentina de Psiquiatras