The coronavirus pandemic is risking the mental health of our NHS staff
Infection Control nurse Colin Clarke looks out from a Covid-19 recovery ward at Craigavon Area Hospital in Co Armagh, Northern Ireland | PA Images
The unrelenting pressure of Covid-19 means our medical staff are at risk of developing anxiety, burnout and PTSD. It is time now to look after them as they have looked after us.
The 2019 general election saw 10 medical doctors returned as Members of Parliament, the joint highest number since 1979. At this time of national crisis it means that collectively, along with other parliamentarians who come from a health background, we are able to provide the strongest voice for NHS staff who are on the front line in the fight against this disease.
Even in normal times our doctors and nurses see traumatising things. Staff in accident and emergency departments witness the horrific aftermath of accidents; whereas as those working in ITUs will watch patients at the end of long and painful battles with grieving relatives close by. Is it any wonder that medics are known for a dark sense of humour as a coping mechanism for the many disturbing things that they see?
The coronavirus pandemic is not normal times and NHS staff are not only witnessing prolonged periods of patients in distress and dying; they are doing so at a time when a significant number of their own are succumbing to the virus. It’s clear that parity of esteem for mental health conditions, and preserving the mental health of NHS staff, has become an increasingly important issue for government in recent years and that is to be welcomed.
When we returned from recess, I questioned the health secretary about ongoing mental health support for front line workers both during and after this pandemic. I’m pleased that colleagues across the house have also done so, and that Government is acting.
Last month the British Psychological Society warned that NHS staff could develop anxiety, burnout, or post-traumatic stress disorder, warning that “healthcare leaders and managers must take proactive steps to protect the psychological wellbeing of their staff during and after the coronavirus outbreak.”
Similarly Health Education England have recommended that NHS staff receive post-trauma counselling as well as having access to psychological treatment services. We are all now aware of the effects of PTSD on servicemen and women returning from theatres of conflict around the world. For many years shell shock was seen as an inevitable by-product of war; it took decades for healthcare to catch up and start providing effective treatment for our veterans.
While it is undoubtedly true that most front line NHS staff will never see the physical horrors of battlefield warfare it is also the case that while soldiers will eventually leave their theatre, medics treating patients throughout this pandemic will have to remain in their own for the remainder of their careers. In the words of the BPS we are running the risk of a “future mental health crisis” amongst front line staff.
While NHS England have acted quickly to establish a mental health hotline to support and advise healthcare staff that is only the start.
It is important that continued mental health support is made available to any member of NHS staff after this episode in our history is over. It’s vital that support is easily visible and accessible. It cannot be support available in name only but must be proactively promoted to front line staff, a service which is a first choice and not a last. Crucially, accessing support must not be stigmatised, even inadvertently – it must reach to the heart of health culture. Most importantly the effects of the coronavirus pandemic and how it has manifested itself on staff must not be forgotten.
Sadly we have had far more opportunities than we would have wished for to develop best practice in treating PTSD. There must be learning of how the condition is treated by our armed forces. Similarly we can learn from treatment provided to first responders after the Grenfell tragedy. If we are to step up to supporting frontline workers we must harness those lessons from the past.
Dr Luke Evans is Conservative MP for Bosworth.