Psychiatric Views on the Daily News - Episode 129

Mayday, Mayday, Mayday for Our Mental Health!: Our Government Sounds the Alarm on Health Care Worker Burnout

The US Surgeon General officially addresses health care worker burnout.

PSYCHIATRIC VIEWS ON THE DAILY NEWS

The timing could not be more appropriate. As we near the end of Mental Health Awareness Month and our annual American Psychiatric Association Meeting, our country’s Surgeon General has just sent out a kind of Mayday alarm on health care workers’ burnout and resignation. As we know, that includes psychiatrists and other caregivers in mental health.

The alarm recognizes the added stress and trauma of the pandemic on a crisis that was growing for about a decade or more beforehand. As Secretary of Health and Human Services, Xavier Becerra, is quoted in the press release:

“. . . they’re telling us what our gratitude needs to look like: real support and systemic change that allows them to continue to serve to the best of their abilities.”1

Physicians have been trying to address their epidemic of burnout in many ways for years, with modest success at best. Colleagues and I edited a book on how psychiatrists could help lead the way, and we still can, though our organizational effort seems stalled.2 Now, as the alarm conveys, the burnout is increasing once again and spreading to public health workers and low-wage health workers.

There are recommendations, including:

-Listen to and empower health care workers;

-Ensure the safety of health care workers;

-Reduce administrative burdens;

-Prioritize teams and social support; and

-Invest in increasing the workforce.

This is not the first such mental health advisory to come out of Surgeon General Murthy’s office. In December 2021, an advisory on the youth mental health crisis was sent out.3 It is unclear whether any progress has been made in the months since.

Credit must be given for calling out yet another mental health crisis. It should also help the public understand this threat to their own wellbeing. In addition, burnout is a growing problem among many workers in other fields, and in parents, too. This—along with the political and social divisiveness, now including abortion laws—strongly and worryingly suggests that we have a general mental health crisis in this country.

These advisories can only be considered the first comprehensive general governmental steps. Necessary as soon as possible are the actions, and the action must address the role of power of the for-profit businesses that control health care and other aspects of our lives. Yes, President Biden’s administration has a national mental health strategy within the Unity Agenda, yet will it work well enough and fast enough, and stay in power long enough, to make a significant difference?

Anyone for a governmental single payor system like most every other nation has or, at least, an expansion of Medicare?

Dr Moffic is an award-winning psychiatrist who has specialized in the cultural and ethical aspects of psychiatry. A prolific writer and speaker, he received the one-time designation of Hero of Public Psychiatry from the Assembly of the American Psychiatric Association in 2002. He is an advocate for mental health issues related to climate instability, burnout, Islamophobia, and anti-Semitism for a better world. He serves on the Editorial Board of Psychiatric Times™.

References

1. Addressing Health Worker Burnout: The U.S. Surgeon General’s Advisory on Building a Thriving Health Workforce. US Surgeon General. 2022. Accessed May 24, 2022. https://www.hhs.gov/surgeongeneral/priorities/health-worker-burnout/index.html

2. Loboprabhu S, Summers R, Moffic HS, eds. Combating Physician Burnout: A Guide for Psychiatrists. American Psychiatric Association Publishing; 2019.

3. U.S. Surgeon General Issues Advisory on Youth Mental Health Crisis Further Exposed by COVID-19 Pandemic. US Surgeon General. December 7, 2021. Accessed May 24, 2022. https://www.hhs.gov/about/news/2021/12/07/us-surgeon-general-issues-advisory-on-youth-mental-health-crisis-further-exposed-by-covid-19-pandemic.html