COVID-19 (coronavirus) Mental health

Mental health on the frontlines during COVID-19

Dr. Dev

It’s the third wave of the pandemic and Dr. Shelly Dev, an intensive care physician, doesn’t hold back how she’s feeling after more than a year of dealing with COVID-19.

“It is hard. It is brutal. Like so many others, I hate the experience of this pandemic,” says Dr. Dev. “But what I hate more is watching what is happening to people who are getting sick with COVID. It is devastating. And for those on the frontline, whether it is coping with the everyday stressors of dealing with the disease or trying to care for patients struggling or dying from COVID, the pandemic is affecting everyone in different ways. People everywhere are being impacted by the pandemic.”

Over the years, Dr. Dev has been vocal about the importance of breaking down barriers and stigma around mental health in medicine after publicly sharing her story of burnout following the death of her father in 2011.

Here, she shares some insights on what frontline workers are facing during the pandemic, how to manage anxiety, and why being vulnerable is a strength when it motivates health-care workers to reach out for the help they need.

What has this pandemic experience been like for you and your team?

Dr. Dev: The third wave is so much more dangerous and damaging than what we saw last year. Younger patients, entire families, people who are essential workers who don’t have the option to stay home from work – we are seeing so many more people’s lives being destroyed by this virus, getting sick and dying of COVID-19 in this wave.

Dealing with this degree of illness in terms of severity, numbers and tragedy more than a year into the pandemic has been mentally and physically exhausting for health-care workers everywhere. The teams of people who are taking care of these patients and families include nurses, respiratory therapists, dieticians, pharmacists, residents and staff physicians – and everyone is pushing themselves beyond their limits. It’s not just the medical teams; the custodial staff, biomedical teams, porters, food service workers and others are working so hard. All of these teams do it because they are so committed, dedicated and compassionate.

If the situation weren’t so overwhelming and exhausting, we could appreciate how truly inspiring and touching it is to see workers carry one another through all this.

What barriers are you trying to break down when it comes to mental health among health-care workers?

Dr. Dev: It’s important to be composed and focused for the sake of the patients, their families and the teams we are leading. It is absolutely crucial to be professional and to continue providing the best care we can regardless of the strain and circumstances.

But I also think it is okay to share with one another when we feel anxiety or what we are worried about, and to say we need help, even though that can be perceived by some as a weakness or failure as a health-care professional. I think we have problematically equated those struggles with weakness – as evidence we aren’t up to the task, even though that’s not the case.

In the culture of medicine, there is an unspoken rule that you must keep your vulnerability to yourself. It’s a deeply entrenched belief that the best clinician is the one who can withstand the most discomfort, which to me is a bizarre notion of toughness that seems to be equated with ability. With this thinking, it’s as if those in health care are supposed to be exempt from the pain and struggle that every human being experiences in a lifetime. As a result, we don’t see ourselves as humans first, instead we see ourselves as our professional selves first. We’ve learned to be this way.

I think if those of us in the medical community were more honest with one another about what we are truly feeling during inevitable times of difficulty, perhaps reaching out for support would be seen as more of a strength than a vulnerability.

How have you been coping throughout the pandemic?

Dr. Dev: I have found it difficult. I have struggled with my own anxiety in the middle of this pandemic. Everyone’s lives have been turned upside down over the past year and I’m no different. Some of us are parents who are helping our kids adjust to virtual school. Some of us are partners trying to be supportive and emotionally responsive. We all have family and friends who worry about us and who we worry about just the same.

Having my nearest and dearest with me helps me get through tough times. I need my people – my husband and my sons are central to my sense of belonging, security and happiness. I’m trying to do what many people are doing – getting outside with my dog as much as I can to just take a breath and look around, prioritizing exercise because it helps keep my anxiety under control. I cook and bake, often with my sons because it’s totally distracting and calming. I continue to meet with my book club once a month over Zoom to keep reading and stay connected with my friends. I watch a lot of Golden Girls reruns.

I’ve realized that if I just focus on the day ahead of me and ask myself, “Okay, what is the objective of today?”, I feel as though I’m regaining some control over my life. We’ve been talking a lot about this in my house lately and setting goals for the immediate future, as in, what we will watch tonight or what should we cook this weekend? In a year when we’ve had to park our hopes and expectations, I need to focus my perspective on the things I can do, the things I know I can make happen. And in the meantime, continue to hope for, at some point, better times to come.

Strategies for coping on the frontlines of the COVID-19 pandemic 
Mental health resources for coping during COVID-19 from Sunnybrook experts


If you need help in an emergency, please call 911 or visit your local emergency department.

If you’re feeling like you’re in crisis or need somebody to talk to, please know that help is also available through community resources:

About the author

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Jennifer Palisoc

Jennifer Palisoc is a Communications Advisor at Sunnybrook.

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