Former First Lady Michelle Obama broke the internet when she recently announced she had been suffering low-grade depression because of the pandemic and national upheaval. Her declaration appeared to resonate with people across the country suffering from physical illness, isolation, and income and job losses.

A recent study published in the JAMA Network Open found that 3 times more Americans are suffering from depression during the COVID-19 pandemic compared with before. Front-line workers have not been sheltered from this challenge, as borne out by high-profile physician suicides in COVID-19 hotspots.

“What is going on with the pandemic is ongoing and there is uncertainty about when there will be a return to normal,” said Carol Bernstein, MD, vice chair for faculty development at Montefiore Medical Center in New York City. “We are all adapting to a situation where we don’t know what’s coming down the line.”

Burnout or depression?

Burnout is a common malady among physicians as a result of working long hours and dissatisfaction stemming from having less time to spend with individual patients. But with many physicians working fewer hours now, mental health challenges they are dealing with may look more like depression. How can one tell the difference?


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Burnout, Dr Bernstein explained, tends to be more transient and is related to work situations. Symptoms can be emotional exhaustion, depersonalization and lack of effectiveness on the job.

“If someone is saying they feel down and disconnected and angry and irritable, but when they get away from work those symptoms go away, that is more indicative of burnout than depression,” she said. 

It can be a bit more difficult to detangle those kinds of emotions during a pandemic when there are so many more stressors. But burnout is typically related to system issues in the workplace.

Classic symptoms of depression, however, are feelings of sadness, hopelessness, and loss of sleep or too much sleep. Symptoms tend to come on over a period of time and can stick around longer.

If more serious symptoms arise, like dramatic changes in sleep or appetite, suicidal ideation, and not enjoying things that usually are pleasurable, it is important to seek help from a mental health professional, Dr Bernstein said. This can also be true if symptoms are milder but persist for weeks or months at a time.

This article originally appeared on Renal and Urology News