Frontline COVID-19 Workers Sacrifice Beyond Physical Health

Study shows an increase in mental health issues among medical staff

Posted Jun 06, 2020

Photo by Robin Benzrihem on Unsplash
Source: Photo by Robin Benzrihem on Unsplash

By Sarah Wilcox

There is no question that the COVID-19 pandemic has taken a toll, to some degree, on the mental health of almost every person in the world. This CDC webpage, along with a plethora of other online resources, provides a list of symptoms and coping strategies to deal with the unique challenges presented by a still unknown and unpredictable global outbreak. There is one group of individuals, however, that research shows may bear a particularly heavy mental health burden during these stressful times. Frontline medical workers combatting the coronavirus, day in and day out, put themselves at risk of not only contracting the illness themselves but also being exposed to the mental and emotional horrors of the merciless disease that has already killed at least 248,000 people in only 6 months.

This viral Facebook post by New York ICU nurse KP Mendoza explains the extreme loneliness and emotional toll the virus has taken on him, a once naively optimistic nursing student now considering whether to write his own will at only 24 years of age. While we are all struggling with the consequences of the coronavirus in our own ways, it is especially important that we shine light upon the unique challenges faced by frontline healthcare workers and consider ways to come alongside them to meet the mental challenges they may be facing.

The above-referenced study was conducted by lead researchers Wen Lu and Hang Wang out of China’s Fujian Medical University. The study sought to assess the psychological status of frontline medical workers compared to administrative staff at the same hospital, surveying a total of 2,299 people (2,042 frontline staff and 257 administrative staff). The survey measured 3 different psychological indicators including fear, anxiety, and depression, using the well-respected Numeric Rating Scale (NRS) for fear, the Hamilton Anxiety Scale (HAMA), and the Hamilton Depression Scale (HAMD).

The results of the survey demonstrated statistically significant differences in the mental health levels of frontline versus administrative staff. The study explains that:

“The proportion of [the] medical staff group [with] moderate and severe fear was higher than that in the administrative staff group (70.6% VS 58.4%). Moreover, 22.6% of medical staff showed mild to moderate anxiety…the corresponding proportions of administrative staff were 17.1%. The different severity of fear…and anxiety…between two groups were significant. [However], as compared to the administrative staff group, there was no significant difference in severity of depression in medical staff group.”

In other words, frontline medical workers are more susceptible to experiencing anxiety and depression in the face of the COVID-19 pandemic than individuals not on the front lines. The study goes on to explain some of the anxiety-provoking elements unique to frontline workers, including direct contact with patients, a shortage of PPE, suspect of patients concealing medical history, and fear of bringing the virus home to their loved ones. With so many challenges, the study explains that medical workers might feel “incapable of reaching their aspirations…creat[ing] anxiety and depression.” Being a frontline medical worker during the age of the coronavirus is both a physical and mental vulnerability that must be acknowledged and addressed by family and friends, policymakers, and humanitarians alike.

The data presented by this study from the Fujian Medical Hospital, unfortunately, has far-reaching, heartbreaking realities. Just last week, top New York ER doctor Lorna Breen, a survivor of the coronavirus herself, took her own life, the mental health burden placed on her too difficult to bear. Despite having no known history of mental illness, Breen’s father explains how hard it was for her to be so helpless and unable to save COVID-19 patients. Her father urges that “she’s a causality just as much as anyone else who has died [from the virus].” Frontline medical workers are sacrificing far more than their physical health in their efforts to serve others by combatting COVID-19, and we must come alongside them, in turn serving them by being a social support for the mental health challenges they bear on our behalves.

Sarah Wilcox is a Master’s student at Wheaton College studying Humanitarian and Disaster Leadership. She hopes to leverage her knowledge by working in a nonprofit or government agency that addresses the intersections between humanitarian disasters and human trafficking around the world.


Lu, W., Wang, H., Lin, Y., & Li, L. (2020). Psychological status of medical workforce during the COVID-19 pandemic: A cross-sectional study. Psychiatry Research, 288, 112936.