Frontline Nurses’ Mental Health at Risk During COVID-19

Researchers say a myriad of risk factors may influence the psychological health of frontline nurses during the COVID-19 pandemic.

Psychological Impact on Nurses

In a 2020 study, researchers (Song el al.) surveyed 14,825 doctors and nurses in China and found the prevalence rates of depressive symptoms and post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) were 25.2% and 9.1%, respectively.

Among the survey participants, 41.1% were physicians and 58.9% were nurses. The findings show that nurses were at greater risk of PTSD than physicians.

In another 2020 study of 263 frontline nurses, researchers (Nie et al.) found 66 (25.1%) were identified as psychological distress. The prevalence of psychological distress among frontline nurses in this study was higher than the 6.7%–16.6% rate in general population in China.

This psychological distress was predominantly described as sleep disturbance, symptoms of anxiety and depression, post-traumatic stress, inability to make decisions and even somatic symptoms.

Myriad Risk Factors

On the surface, the higher prevalence of PTSD and distress in nurses may be attributed to the fact that a nurse is more closely connected with the patient, with greater contact time.

However, a myriad of other risk factors may also influence nurses’ psychological health. Such risk factors include gender, age, years at work, marital status, workload, social support, etc.

Men were more likely to have depressive symptoms and PTSD than women. Those who were middle aged, worked for fewer years, had longer daily work time, and had lower levels of social support were at a higher risk of developing depressive symptoms and PTSD.

Middle-aged medical staff typically have a higher family burden and may be more concerned about their family members, which may affect their mental health.

Medical staff who are unmarried, divorced, or widowed receive less care and/or communication from their partner(s) and may experience less family support. Studies show that lower levels of social support were associated with an increased risk of depressive symptoms and PTSD.

The fewer the years that medical staff had been working, the greater the risk of depressive symptoms and PTSD. A longer work tenure often means more clinical experience when faced with an epidemic, which may be conducive to stronger self-regulation ability.


Sources consulted:

Song, Xingyue, et al. “Mental health status of medical staff in emergency departments during the Coronavirus disease 2019 epidemic in China.” Brain, Behavior, and Immunity, vol. 88, 2020, pp. 60–65.

Nie, Anliu, et al. “Psychological impact of COVID-19 outbreak on frontline nurses: A cross-sectional survey study.” Journal of Clinical Nursing, vol. 29, 2020, pp. 4217–4226.


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