A nurse who resigned after months on the frontline at a specialist Covid hospital in Dubai has called for free psychological counselling for medics.
Health workers bore the brunt of much of the panic and anxiety as Covid-19 took hold in March 2020.
Eighteen months on, as those frontline workers begin to draw breath and Covid case numbers fall, some are leaving the profession behind.
Filipina Zerah Garrote, 30, worked in a hospital before the mental strain of the pandemic took its toll. She later moved to a quieter hospital.
“I resigned from being a frontliner due to anxiety and depression. It was too much stress seeing people dying and I did not know how to deal with it,” Ms Garrote said.
“I realised It was not just me, but also many of my colleagues.
“People are leaving nursing around the world because they do not feel safe in their jobs any more. There were eight [resignations] in the previous hospital I worked in, it was particularly challenging in ICU.
“I have worked through Ebola, dengue fever and a measles outbreak but the Covid pandemic was far worse. It is the most stressful time I have worked through.”
UAE mental health helplines
The UAE government has several helplines for mental health, especially for those affected by Covid-19.
A dedicated Frontline Heroes Office offers various support for medics and other frontline personnel.
The government has help lines such as the Mental Support Line 800-HOPE which is available from 8am to 8pm daily, and the Ministry of Health and Prevention Mental Health Counselling, 045192519, which is available from Sunday to Thursday from 9am to 9pm.
Federal government employees can contact Life Works on the toll-free number 800-543396757 or through WhatsApp on 054-7041783 or 052-9396126 to seek counselling on mental health issues.
Ms Garrote, who has worked in nursing since 2011, made a short four-minute film to highlight the issues faced by frontline nurses. Her aim is to encourage more of them to seek mental health support.
Called “I am a nurse”, the film will give an insight into the challenges faced by frontliners during the pandemic and will be distributed on social media.
Ms Garrote has also started an online advocacy that deals with mental health for nurses.
Her goal is to eventually provide free professional psychological consultations for frontline health workers.
“There are wellness facilities with free consultations but nurses are different and do not always acknowledge their own mental heath issues until we break down," she said.
“It is hard having to be strong all the time. The nursing community here is small, and we all know someone who has died of Covid while doing their job."
Figures from the International Council of Nurses show that more than 1.6 million healthcare workers in 34 countries were infected by the coronavirus in 2020.
“The dying can never wait for us to adjust. The nurse is thrown into the worst possible situation and is expected to rise from all the challenges," she said.
One of those who died in the UAE was Lezly Orine Ocampo, who worked for Burjeel Homecare supporting women, children and people in rehabilitation at home.
The Filipina healthcare worker caught the virus at work after voluntarily extending her hours to help tackle the outbreak. She died on May 12, 2020.
Globally, the pandemic has had a huge effect on mental health services.
In the UK, there were 1.5 million people in contact with English mental health services in June 2021, 12.4 per cent more than 12 months before with 1.6 million people awaiting treatment.
A long term plan for mental health recovery will pump an extra £2.3 billion ($3.13 billion) into NHS mental health services by 2024.
Mental health counsellor Marie Byrne, who runs a wellness clinic in Dubai, has treated two healthcare workers in recent weeks, helping them deal with stress generated by the pandemic.
“Trauma and difficulties can build up over just a few weeks when health workers are going about their daily jobs,” she said.
“There will be gains and losses so it can be a rollercoaster of emotions.
“Having the support so they can be debriefed properly is critical to maintain optimism about their role.
“Nurses and doctors will always ask themselves if they could have done more when someone has passed away, and they often feel responsible, so they need to have a coping strategy to avoid feeling overwhelmed.”
Ms Byrne, who volunteers 16 hours a week as a mental health professional for the Emirates Foundation crisis line, said helplines should be better advertised to direct people to services.
“Front-line professionals are expected to cope on their own,” she said.
“Sometimes it is not the depth of the trauma as if they have lost a loved one, it is more the shock of seeing what is happening and not being able to cope.”