Dealing With COVID-19 Post-Traumatic Stress

Strategies for Preserving the Nursing Workforce and Supporting all Vital Frontline Personnel

Therese A. Fitzpatrick, PhD, RN, FAAN; Nancy M. Valentine, PhD, DSc(hon), MPH, FAAN, FNAP President


Nurs Econ. 2021;39(5):225-238, 250. 

In This Article

An Uneasy Topic

Therese Fitzpatrick (TF): Though it is hard to recall a time prior to COVID, you have observed nurses and nursing were already experiencing stress. Would you elaborate on your observations? What trends were being reported?

Nancy Valentine (NV): Let's face it. Stress, mental health, and impairment in the nursing workforce is not an easy topic to focus on. Whether nurses themselves, managers, or leaders, we often have a difficult time acknowledging such problems exist and prefer to talk about all the great heroics and innovations that have happened. Indeed, there are many positive outcomes because of the COVID-19 experience that required charting a road map along the way. Inventing "just in time solutions" has yielded some extraordinary innovations like the Johnson & Johnson Nurses Innovate Quick Fire Challenge on Mental Health, in partnership with the American Psychiatric Nurses Association. This year J & J supported solutions for mental health practice that have championed nurse-driven innovations. The nurse innovators with the best idea(s) received up to $100,000 in grant funding and access to mentoring from experts across the Johnson & Johnson Family of Companies to help bring their ideas to life. There have been endless lessons learned and breakthroughs in care delivery across the industry (Johnson & Johnson, 2020–2021).

But while celebrating we need to take a "time out" to give attention to the darker side of how this world-wide pandemic has affected individuals, patients and families, clinicians' families, and even the institutions of health care overall. How people have attempted to cope with fear, loneliness, and isolation deserves our attention.

Part of healing from any trauma involves talking about the pain and suffering involved and listening to stories of those who have lived this experience. This is a vital and healthy step if we are to move beyond tragedy and life-changing experiences. Such conversations give us a chance to take stock of where we are and where we need to go both strategically and practically to preserve our nursing staff and co-workers and improve outcomes.

From the time the COVID pandemic hit, I was deeply concerned about how this would impact clinical staff on the short-term and long-term. Having worked previously in the VA, I learned about post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) firsthand, so I anticipate we will be dealing with COVID-related PTSD for a long time. There are indeed lessons learned from PTSD treatment with military Veterans that can be applied to our clinical staff who have been through this traumatic experience.

Vaccines may protect against the virus but there is no shot for wiping away the memories, feelings, and sense of helplessness and guilt so many people have experienced during the pandemic. The world knows and recognizes healthcare staff were among the first responders who assumed the brunt of the frontline drama and were often the only defense between life and death with dignity; sharing the most private and heart-rendering moments imaginable with family and friends who were kept at a distance.