Mental resilience on the COVID-19 frontline

22 Apr 2020 | 5 mins

Lessons about post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) from Australia’s emergency workers and bushfire fighters indicate it is essential frontline healthcare workers, as much as possible, be given adequate time to process, rest and recover after each shift caring for COVID-19 patients, says UWA mental health researcher Associate Professor David Lawrence.

Crucial also was ensuring a good level of social support, which he acknowledged was currently a challenge due to the strict isolation requirements of containing the highly infectious virus.

“I think that the COVID-19 pandemic and all the disruptions associated with it are a unique situation that we don’t really have ready experiences to draw from in forecasting what the longer-term impacts might be,” he said. “What we have learnt from our work with emergency services workers is that the cumulative exposure to multiple traumatic events over a period of time can impact on wellbeing.

“Resilience also is not just a yes/no concept, where you either have it or you don’t. For anyone, even those with high levels of resilience, there are potentially things that can overwhelm their innate resilience.”

One in three emergency services and police employees experience high or very high psychological distress compared to one in eight Australian adults.

Dr Lawrence’s research team conducted the 21,000-strong “Answering the Call, National Mental Health and Wellbeing Study of Police and Emergency Services” on behalf of Beyond Blue, and is currently undertaking ongoing research into the impact of the intense summer bushfire season on the mental health and wellbeing of our first responders.

His research focuses on organisational and team culture, and workplace factors that can affect mental wellbeing, including attitudes and experiences of stigma and discrimination. It considers the use of support services when needed, including those provided by agencies and seeking support outside the agency, and the barriers that might stand in the way of seeking help when needed.

Ambulance, police, fire and SES employees, volunteers and retired and former personnel answered his team’s questions about their wellbeing and resilience, anxiety conditions, depression, PTSD and suicidal thoughts. Nearly half the employees and one in three volunteers in emergency services had been diagnosed with a mental health condition in their life, and half the employees had experienced a traumatic event in their work that deeply affected them. One in three emergency services and police employees experience high or very high psychological distress compared to one in eight Australian adults.

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