THE absence of adequate psychosocial support services coupled with discrimination from workmates and society especially for doctors who were working in the COVID-19 frontline exposed medical doctors to numerous mental health challenges at the height of the COVID-19 pandemic.
By Michael Gwarisa
The report was a qualitative study to explore the experiences of medical practitioners responding to COVID-19 in Zimbabwe. Presenting findings from the Health Awareness Report study, Zimbabwe Association of Doctors for Human Rights (ZADHR) Secretary General, Dr Norman Matara said the medical sector was not spared from the effects of the pandemic.
Health workers are already predisposed to mental health issues even before COVID-19, they have been researches and studies done and they indicate that health workers are prone to mental health issues because of the nature of the work that they do and the environment that they see themselves in.
“Losing patient is something that actually affects your mental health and it has been seen that when there is a pandemic, that pressure or mental health stress actually increases. It has been seen where there have outbreaks like the Ebola in Liberia and also the emergence of SARS in 2001 and 2008 respectively where it was seen that medical practitioners who responded to the SARS outbreak in South Korea recorded increased mental health issues,” said Dr Matara.
He added that COVID-19 had its own unique features that impacted negatively on the mental health of doctors for example the absence of Personal Protective Equipment (PPE), an increase in COVID-19 cases within healthcare workers and the death of healthcare workers and sensationalised media reporting actually increased mental health stress.
“The workload also during COVID-19 played a part. Even us as healthcare workers, we actually designed our unit to call them Red-Zones or Greene Zones etc. Red is always associated with danger so we actually did ourselves a disservice by labelling the units red zones. There is also the lifestyle changes that came with the COVID-19 for example the constant wearing of masks, the constant sanitization, lockdowns, social distancing and all those things actually affected the mental health of people.”
He further revealed hat in just three months into the pandemic, over 50 nurses in Mashonaland Central had resigned in Zimbabwe citing mental health related challenges. He added that the fact that Zimbabwe has very few mental health workers within the public health system also made the situation worse for the healthcare workers.
“You see that there are only 18 psychiatrists covering the whole of Zimbabwe and you see that from those 18 psychiatrists, they are mainly concentrated within the cities in Harare and Bulawayo and we have about 917 mental health nurses across the country which translates to about to about 6500 metal health nurses per 100,000 people.
“We have only six clinical psychologists in government and 10 professional therapists and 13 clinical social workers in the country. This data is from the World Health Organisation (WHO) by 2020. There are only 11 mental health facilities across the entire country in the public health sector and most of these facilities are not 100% functional and there is constant and insufficient mental health grants, we always see mental health patients not getting medications,” said Dr Matara.
Some of the common mental health problems in Zimbabwe are Schizophrenia, Bipolar disorder, major expressing disorder, epilepsy, alcohol intake abuse, drug abuse, suicide and para suicide. He added that doctors in some cases had to adopt negative coping mechanism so as to survive the mental health pressures that were brought about by the COVUD-19.