Congress must address mental health needs of medical workers

  • Raja Krishnamoorthi

    Raja Krishnamoorthi

 
By Raja Krishnamoorthi
Guest columnist
Posted7/14/2020 1:00 AM

We see them everywhere in communities across the country: signs thanking our front-line medical workers for their heroic efforts to save victims of the coronavirus. Some of the signs are professionally printed. Others are handmade -- many by children. All of them show the gratitude Americans feel for the brave doctors, nurses and other health professionals who are fighting the COVID-19 pandemic.

Unfortunately, many of these heroes have been forced to do their jobs without all the equipment they require. Surgical masks, gowns and other personal protective equipment have been in short supply or unavailable. As a result, many medical professionals fighting the virus have put their own health at risk. According to the International Council of Nurses, at least 900,000 health care workers around the world have been infected with COVID-19.

                                                                                                                                                                                                                       
 

These heroes also run the risk of infecting their own family members. Many of them have chosen to self-quarantine, spending weeks away from their partners and children. This adds to their mental strain and isolation. It's no wonder that a recent study found doctors and nurses suffering from high rates of depression, anxiety, and insomnia. In one heartbreaking case, a New York City emergency room physician committed suicide -- an act her family attributed to her work fighting the coronavirus.

So far, Congress has directed needed federal aid to workers who have lost their jobs to the pandemic and small businesses that have closed under lockdown orders. We have provided assistance to hospitals bearing the financial burden of treating victims of COVID-19, and for governments providing the safety-net services to those affected by it. But, to this point, we haven't fully considered the needs of the folks on the front lines of the battle -- the nurses and doctors and other health workers.

To address this unmet challenge, we have just introduced the Coronavirus Health Care Worker Wellness Act of 2020. Our bipartisan bill would accomplish two things:

First, it would establish a federal grant program, under the auspices of the Secretary of Health and Human Services, allowing health care providers to establish or expand programs dedicated to promoting mental wellness among their front-line workers.

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Second, it would fund a comprehensive national study on health care workers' mental health and the existing barriers that keep them from accessing needed treatment. The study would assess the impact of poor mental health and burnout on the health care system and patient outcomes and recommend preparedness strategies for future national health emergencies.

Our legislation follows a letter we sent to House leadership last month calling for mental health resources for front-line medical workers that garnered the support of over 50 medical organizations, including the American Medical Association, the American College of Emergency

Physicians, and the Emergency Nurses Association. We saw the enthusiasm behind these initiatives and have introduced our Coronavirus Health Care Worker Wellness Act in response.

The heartfelt expressions of gratitude from so many people across the country is certainly merited by our health care workers. But, as a nation, we need to do more than just offer our thanks. We must make sure that the emotional challenges affecting front-line medical workers are recognized, analyzed, and treated. Such action by Congress, backed by the American people, will acknowledge both the heroism of our doctors and nurses and the mental health needs that have resulted. It's a small price to pay for the huge sacrifice they are making.

• Congressman Raja Krishnamoorthi is a Democrat from Schaumburg.

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