Doctors on the frontline are calling for mental health support and realistic strategies to deal with trauma as they continue to grapple with the ongoing coronavirus pandemic.
At a press conference for the Every Doctor campaign group on Thursday, a number of NHS medics spoke in harrowing terms of the effects the pandemic is having on them almost a year on and pleaded for appropriate support. Among those listening were cross-party MPs.
One anonymous Every Doctor member who works in a busy A&E department told viewers: “I believe we are at the beginning of a major national mental health and well-being crisis. The effects of this pandemic mean that everyone is struggling and so are doctors.”
The senior doctor, who is also a mother and a wife, said she and her colleagues had found themselves unable to keep up with normal life tasks such as ensuring their children were able to sleep, taxing their cars, making dinner, home-schooling and cleaning their houses. Some are facing financial ruin.
She said: “We watch tragedies unfold in front of us day after day and our usual coping mechanisms are gone. Usually we would go home from an awful shift and maybe have a drink or a meal with a friend, maybe go to the gym, maybe play some music and laugh. And then we are recharged and ready for when we go back to our next shift and we are able to deal with all the awfulness again.
“But that is no longer happening. Doctors, like everyone else, are unable to reach out after a terrible day, which to be quite honest is most days. And I have never seen such sadness from my colleagues.”
GPs have also seen an increased workload, in part taking on some of the work that hospitals are too overrun to do, and also dealing with the fallout of the pandemic and lockdown, including a rise in mental health issues.
Dr Anna Fryer, a consultant psychiatrist, said many NHS workers were experiencing burnout after a prolonged time under extreme pressure.
She added: “They have been asked to work in ways that are unfamiliar and feel unsafe. Many will know colleagues who have died and become severely unwell.”
Several medics pointed out that well-being initiatives such as offering lunchtime yoga sessions to NHS staff – which make up the UK’s largest workforce – were not enough.
Dr Megan Smith, a consultant anaesthetist, who has worked through both coronavirus waves intubating critically ill patients, described casualties of the virus as “some of the sickest patients I’ve ever seen in my life”.
Dr Smith compared the UK’s staggering death toll, which has now surpassed 100,000, to those in Australia (909), New Zealand (25) and South Korea (1,448) , and called for the government to control its borders and “lock down properly” by offering state support to those who must isolate.
“If we don’t change anything, the same thing will happen again,” she said.
Last month a Unison survey found almost half of 14,000 health employees – including nurses, porters, paramedics, healthcare assistants and A&E staff – across the UK said they had struggled to cope.
Helplines were urgently needed to support those experiencing burnout, especially as hospital admissions continue to soar, said Unison.
Some respondents said they had experienced suicidal thoughts, post traumatic stress disorder symptoms and panic attacks, felt helpless when supporting patients – or quit their jobs altogether.
Others said their mental health had been affected by having to leave rented accommodation because landlords are worried about Covid-19, or fears they will infect their families, according to the findings.
The results showed that half had sought mental health support, with the majority turning to friends, family and colleagues.
The total number of deaths since the start of the pandemic 11 months ago passed 100,000 last week, leading prime minister Boris Johnson to say he was “deeply sorry” for every life lost and that the government “truly did everything we could”.
The highest number of deaths recorded on a single day was 1,820 on January 20.
Useful websites and helplines
Mind, open Monday to Friday, 9am-6pm on 0300 123 3393.
Samaritans offers a listening service which is open 24 hours a day, on 116 123 (UK and ROI - this number is FREE to call and will not appear on your phone bill).