Protecting the mental health of Nigeria’s health workers

Mental health challenges occur following most disasters, and some experts have argued that the world might see social and economic impacts from COVID-19 similar to those of World War II. Anxiety about the health, economic, and social risks of the pandemic will lead to mental health challenges, especially for healthcare workers – the first responders in the fight against COVID-19. Mental health is still somewhat of a taboo topic in Nigeria, which limits the ability of individuals to seek proper help. Further, Nigeria has failed to address mental health challenges from its civil war, and a 2011 report found evidence of Posttraumatic Stress Disorder PTSD in veterans and survivors of the civil war. Thus, it is important that we do not keep ignoring these silent killers, and support those in need for a holistic recovery from this pandemic.

In March, a study from China found that healthcare workers recorded cases of depression, anxiety, and insomnia while caring for COVID-19 patients. Some nurses have reported that they have never experienced anything close to the present work hours, lack of protection, and patient fatalities in health facilities. There have also been instances of high infection rates of health care workers around the world as the PPE supply is limited and the workers still commit to saving lives. For example, on May 1st, Nigeria’s Minister of Health reported that 113 health workers have been infected with COVID-19, and in Spain healthcare workers accounted for circa 14% of total infections as of the end of March. Some health care workers are not given adequate training to avoid infections while managing cases, leaving them vulnerable to infections. The increased risk of infection causes worry, anxiety, and fear for healthcare workers and their families. Thus, it is important to support these heroes, and ensure that we show gratitude with actions.

To address this burgeoning challenge, we must implement measures that reduce infection rates to avoid stretching our healthcare workers. We must also identify and acknowledge that this is an issue to invest adequate resources for mental health support. We must then provide hazard pay for our healthcare workers, following examples from countries like Senegal, China, and Thailand. In Nigeria, the Federal Government has already provided life insurance cover for 5,000 health workers fighting COVID-19. Health facilities should also provide personalized support such as “breather rooms”, in-house counsellors, and toll-free mental health support lines. For example, hospitals in the UK introduced “wobble rooms” for health workers to shout, cry, and take a break. Finally, we must ensure that first responders are provided with proper PPEs and adequate training on case management to reduce infections at the Federal, State, and local levels. These measures to support the mental health of healthcare workers should spill over into actions that address the mental toll on the larger population. Further recommendations on addressing the growing mental health challenge are in the image below.

There are a few responses to the mental health impact of COVID-19 in Nigeria. COVID-19 Partners in Mental Health is a coalition formed by psychiatric associations, clinical health workers, and major mental health NGOs to care for individuals and provide mental health and research support to public and private institutions. Another organization, the Mental Health Mall, formed by several mental health specialists and facilities, is providing teletherapy services to individuals. These interventions are important in increasing access to mental health support systems in Nigeria.

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