The death of a Granby, Que., emergency physician has sent shockwaves throughout the Canadian medical community.
Dr. Karine Dion, 35, who was also the mother of a young son, died by suicide earlier in January. Her family said it was the stress of the COVID-19 pandemic that led to her death.
“Her family and her husband have gone public with this death to let the public know the immense distress that health workers are experiencing on the front lines of this pandemic,” said Dr. Naheed Dosani, a palliative care physician and a health justice activist.
“Throughout this pandemic, our health workers on the front lines, my colleagues, have experienced significant mental stress, losses, trauma, grief, and a burden that is really hard to put in words.”
The burnout rate of doctors practicing emergency medicine is estimated at around 86 per cent, according to a recent survey by the Canadian Association of Emergency Physicians (CAEP), the national organization representing emergency physicians across the country.
The same survey found “frontline staff will be adversely affected by COVID-19 both during and after the pandemic.”
Around 14 per cent of those surveyed had contemplated suicide during their staff career in emergency medicine, and of those physicians almost six per cent had actively considered suicide in the past year.
“We know whenever there’s stress with the added pressure, and the stress becomes prolonged, we feel there is a sense of powerlessness, helplessness. It does increase or can increase the risk for psychological risk conditions, physical risk conditions, and also burnout as well,” explained Dr. Katy Kamkar, a Toronto-based clinical psychologist.
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Dosani said the pandemic has increased the pressure felt by frontline health-care workers exponentially.
“Working in health care on the front lines at baseline is a very stressful proposition and experience for people that stress, that mental anguish, it has doubled, it has tripled, it is exponentially grown,” he said.
“There is so much that health workers are seeing and experiencing and this is leading to a sense of loss and grief that many of us have not experienced before.”
Dosani also said it means “grief circles” are more frequent for himself and his team.
“Our grief circles have doubled in number, we’re having more than ever before because more people are sick and more people are dying than ever before,” he said.
“For many people, what we hear is this is the first time that people have actually had space to just talk. For all the talk about improving people’s health and health care, we spend very little time actually supporting our own around mental health and their resilience and well-being.”
Dosani said the gatherings have been an answer to this, but he is concerned they are “just scratching the surface.”
He explained a “grief circle” is designed for the health-care team who cared for a patient who has died or after a traumatic event to pause, perhaps light a candle, and reflect.
During the pandemic, the team can meet virtually.
Dosani said if the mental health of frontline workers is not prioritized now, “we won’t beat COVID-19.”
“Our health workers will experience more mental distress, more grief, more loss, more trauma and this will put them in a situation where they won’t be able to better serve our communities. And we don’t want to come through this broken, more broken than we already are,” he said.
Dr. Doris Grinspun, CEO of the Registered Nurses’ Association of Ontario (RNAO), said the issue of grief and mental health support is not unique to emergency physicians.
“Every time I think about my colleagues in the front lines … it scares me, it frightens me,” she said.
“Hang in there, doctors, nurses, EMS, any person in essential services, teachers included, hang in there.
“Remember, one out of five people has a mental health illness (and) nurses, doctors, PSWs are no different.”
A friend of Dion started a GoFundMe campaign to raise money for her son, Jacob. More than $29,000 was raised as of early Tuesday.
Donations can also be made to the Canadian Mental Health Association.
If you or someone you know is in crisis and needs help, resources are available. In case of an emergency, please call 911 for immediate help.
For a directory of support services in your area, visit the Canadian Association for Suicide Prevention.
Learn more about how to help someone in crisis here.