High-Level Conference – Mental health and the pandemic: living, caring, acting!

High-Level Conference – Mental health and the pandemic: living, caring, acting!

Posted on May 10, 2021

In the context of the European Mental Health Week, running from 10 to 16 May 2021, the European Commissioner for health, Stella Kyriakides, hosted a high-level conference bringing together speakers from different policy and practice areas, and representatives from the EU Member States, the European Parliament, the European Commission, and key EU stakeholders to discuss the mental health impact of COVID-19 along five themes: understanding, living, caring, responding, and acting.

COVID-19 crisis showed that it is time to change direction and reconsider our EU health systems. Healthcare professionals have been placed under exceptional stress by the pandemic, affecting their mental health and well-being. Working in such challenging conditions, showed in some EU Member States significant psychological health toll on nurses who were continuing to deliver health services in crisis while an entire society was in lockdown, putting their own lives at risk, and being often the only professional with the patient dying.

Invited as keynote speaker, EFN President, Elizabeth Adams, expressed that “Nurses, healthcare professionals and workers across the EU and Europe and around the world face enormous pressure at work, and the pandemic continues to take a heavy toll on the physical and mental wellbeing of front-line healthcare providers. And there is evidence of increasing risk of burnout, post-traumatic and other stress-related disorders among nurses due to operating under ongoing unprecedented pressure and exposure to the virus. Over the last year, since the beginning of the pandemic, nurses have been reporting several important facts that need to be taken seriously into account at EU level, as: dealing with relentless, unprecedented demands to care for patients and those dying resulting in physical exhaustion; facing enormous mental health pressures leading to serious psychological distress (impacted by abuse/pandemic deniers); feeling isolated from their families and are anxious about avoiding infecting their family members.”

More than ever, it is crucial to keep our healthcare professionals, and in particular the nurses, protected from chronic stress and poor mental health. Heavy workloads, life-or-death decisions, and risk of infection are sources of stress for all of them. Ensuring their well-being and mental health is key to sustain any pandemic preparedness, response and recovery. If we do not take actions, we risk not being prepared for the next crisis. To make sure this is not happening again, it is important to explore self-help interventions and preventive measures for reducing psychological distress in times of crisis, see how we can protect their mental health and well-being after it, and appropriate support services should be integrated into every component of national responses to COVID-19. As mentioned in the EFN Report on ‘Lessons Learned from Ebola & COVID-19’, appropriate support services must be put in place for nurses to address the impact of the numerous stressors.

Some possible actions could be taken through national and local programmes that support frontline nurses to preserve their mental health and avoid psychological trauma; by condemning and combatting the stigmatisation of nurses taking care of the most vulnerable citizens (e.g. official communications); by fostering the co-creation and co-design of political decision-making processes involving frontline nurses, concerning infectious disease preparedness, health protocols, training, selection of equipment; by working with nurses to develop policies that protect nursing staff from unnecessarily difficult or unsafe working conditions; and by allocating or re-allocating EU funds to support frontline nurses, to inject funds into the nursing frontline and nursing research, with the aim to be better prepared for future COVID-19 waves. It is time to collaborate to build a resilient nursing workforce!