COVID-19: when our social media posts shift from sharing concerns to fuelling anxiety

As the public looks for healthcare guidance online, it’s important that nurses choose their words wisely

Picture: iStock

In Man’s Search for Meaning the author, psychiatrist and Holocaust survivor Viktor Frankl describes his life as a prisoner in Auschwitz during the second world war.

He believed that, in the most dire circumstances, finding a sense of meaning or purpose is the key to enduring and surviving great pain and suffering.

Online networks provide essential support amid the COVID-19 crisis

In the midst of the COVID-19 pandemic, we do not need to look very far to see the pain and suffering that surrounds us. Social media is an overwhelming flood of fear, grief and loneliness.

We are increasingly reliant on online connections, as the separation from our loved ones and support networks extends through what is likely to be the biggest global event of our time.

The same is true for front-line nurses, who are witnessing the worst of the pandemic unfolding up close.

‘In much the same way an anxious flier looks to a flight attendant during an episode of turbulence, people are looking to healthcare staff for cues about what to do’

In many ways, it is not surprising that we are leaning into online communication now more than ever. We need support, and this may be the only way many of us can access it at the moment.

There are many positives to being able to stay connected despite enforced social distancing, but there are also several troubling elements of this pandemic that have played out on social media.

Social media is magnifying people’s panic and anxiety 

We have been gripped by a social contagion that has fuelled panic to levels beyond any reasonable evidence of risk.

From inexplicable toilet roll hoarding to will writing en masse, these behaviours have taken off on a global scale thanks to social media and the feelings of panic it can create.

As healthcare professionals, we should be all the more mindful of the impact our social media posts may have on our colleagues and members of the public during what is already a stressful time.

Anxiety is catching and the endless messages of doom are unhelpful, with the words of healthcare professionals having the most significant and far-reaching influence.

The eyes of the world are on us. In much the same way an anxious flier looks to a flight attendant during an episode of turbulence, people are looking to healthcare staff for cues about what to do, whether they should be worrying and precisely how much.

Many in healthcare are absorbing a great deal of trauma and preparing for a situation that is set to worsen. Few would argue that discussion of these traumas should be tempered to spare others the discomfort of having to hear about them, but there is a time and a place. Social media, I would argue, is rarely either.

View our COVID-19 resource centre

How we avoid fuelling the parallel pandemic of panic

We must strike the balance between documenting this crisis and using our influence to motivate political action, and being participants in a parallel pandemic of panic.

It is one thing to highlight inadequate provision of personal protective equipment, but quite another to pass on a viral post about a young and healthy nurse writing up her will and hoping her children understand if she dies.

We face risks, of course. Some trusts are already seeing 50% staff absence rates, but it only takes a cursory glance at social media to see this is partly comprised of fearful, asymptomatic staff, many of whom have voiced plans to leave nursing or the NHS entirely as a result. 

On the flip side, we are observing a culture of healthcare heroism. Nurses are leaving their pregnant partners, children and families to live in hotels for an undefined period to work overtime and help on the front line. These people are making tremendous sacrifices, but they are at particular risk of burnout in what is expected to be a marathon, not a sprint.

Be mindful of our collective mental health – and be prepared for the long haul

Healthcare professionals are fortunate to have a sense of purpose and meaning in this pandemic. It will likely carry us through some of the darker days to come. But we must also be mindful to find balance in our words, actions and behaviours. While it would be entirely wrong to chastise any struggling nurse for reaching out or sharing their trauma on social media, it is worth taking a collective step back to look at what we are adding to the discussion, and if we might be engaging in unhealthy behaviours online.

We must continue to be resourceful and pace ourselves. There are currently numerous mental health apps which healthcare staff can access for free to support their well-being, and we are also witnessing incredible acts of camaraderie on the front line.

Perhaps we might extend this to checking on our colleagues out of hours, including those who live alone, and engaging with our online communities to share positive news and hope.

We should continue to lean on each other and to reach out when we need support, but we should also remember that one of the most basic requirements of us as set out in the Nursing and Midwifery Council code is simply to ‘be aware at all times of how your behaviour can affect and influence the behaviour of other people’.

Leanne Patrick is a mental health nurse, community drug and alcohol service, NHS Forth Valley, and project coordinator for The Mental Elf