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As COVID-19 Takes A Toll On Doctors' Mental Health, Nevada Psychiatrists Offer An Ear

Dr. Bret Frey is an emergency room physician in Reno, Nevada, and he likens working in health care right now to fighting in a war. 

"I always thought that there was a good chance that World War III would happen in some form in my lifetime, I just didn't appreciate it was going to come in the form of a virus," Frey says.

Doctors, nurses and health care workers like Frey are on the frontlines of the war against COVID-19, and that comes with a lot of fear. 

"You know, fear for yourself. Fear for your family. Fear for your community," Frey says.

For some, that fear can lead to sleep loss, anxiety and maybe even PTSD. 

Lesley Dickson, a psychiatrist based in Las Vegas, wanted to help. 

"Doctors, they get stressed, and sometimes they just need someone to chat with," Dickson says. "They need someone to kind of decompress with, get some empathic listening or maybe a little bit of advice on how to help them cope with the stress."

So she started a mental health phone line specifically for Nevada health care workers called Curbside Nevada. She and more than a dozen other volunteering psychiatrists are available every day to take calls.

Callers remain anonymous, which will "hopefully decrease the reluctance of people to seek treatment," Dickson says. "One of the things we're trying to counter is the stigma of seeking help for psychological symptoms."

When a health care worker calls, it's a licensed medical professional talking to a licensed medical professional. That person may have similar experiences like medical school, graduate studies, and working in the health system. 

Studies show that this kind of peer-to-peer counseling over the phone can help. A recent examination of peer-support programs for police officers, for example, showed that officers were more likely to start mental health treatment after calling a phone line staffed by fellow police officers.

Wendy Dean, a physician and psychiatrist who focuses on burnout among health care workers, says workers' coronavirus-related mental health care needs are only just emerging.

"It's going to take weeks or months before people are really able to take a breath and start thinking about all they've seen, all they've experienced and to start processing it," she says. "I firmly believe that the mental health surge is going to be significantly delayed from the viral surge."

Curbside Nevada is a statewide service, but there’s also a national support line that doctors and nurses can call to reach a volunteer psychiatrist. 

These volunteer efforts are good, Dean says, but the pandemic's toll on health care workers' mental health requires a long-term effort that doesn't rely on volunteers. "And so I really hope that organizations will step up and recognize that it is critical to the health of their workforce to put some really solid plans in place," she says.

Plans that include things like in-person counseling, group therapy, maybe even exercise and creativity therapy. 

"Having various outlets for people to process what they've been through will make it more likely that you can get more kinds of people the help or the support that they need," Dean says.

For now, both the Nevada and the national phone lines are open, and plan to stay that way for the foreseeable future. 

This story was produced by the Mountain West News Bureau, a collaboration between Wyoming Public Media, Boise State Public Radio in Idaho, KUNR in Nevada, the O'Connor Center for the Rocky Mountain West in Montana, KUNC in Colorado, KUNM in New Mexico, with support from affiliate stations across the region. Funding for the Mountain West News Bureau is provided in part by the Corporation for Public Broadcasting.

Copyright 2020 Boise State Public Radio News

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