The NHS faces a mental health crisis among frontline staff with up to 700 doctors and other healthcare professionals now seeking professional help from colleagues per month, I can reveal.
Professor Dame Clare Gerada, president of the Royal College of GPs, said the specialist clinic she set up over a decade ago had treated the same number of NHS staff in the past 18 months as during the first 10 years of its existence until the pandemic struck.
Dame Clare, who is also president of the Doctors in Distress charity, said Covid-19 had had a “catastrophic” effect on frontline staff, with some suffering from “almost psychotic anxiety.”
She said I: “Entering the pandemic, mental health resources were pretty bad. We have had one of the worst mental health issues of all time. I deal with mentally ill doctors and we have a terrible problem. It is a complex question.
“It’s a combination of shame, stigma, work, all the negativity around doctors asking for help, the more they think they are immune to mental illness and if they come forward people will treat them differently. The levels of burnout among doctors before the pandemic were quite immense.
“When I started working, just like the rest of the population, we just didn’t talk about mental illness. We forget how far we have evolved. I’m not saying everyone is talking about it from top to bottom now, but you’re much more likely to hear someone talk about their mental illness. Even in the new Sex and the City show [And Just Like That…] is all about mental illness.
Dame Clare created the NHS Practitioner Health in 2008 following the suicide of a young psychiatrist who believed she would be removed from the medical register if she spoke about her mental health issues. The woman also killed her newborn baby. The service has been busier than ever with the pandemic putting the NHS and its staff under unprecedented pressure.
“We have seen more NHS staff in the pandemic year than we have seen in the first 10 years of service. We saw 5,000 NHS employees in the first 10 years and just over 5,000 between March 2020 and April of this year – and we are now seeing around 650-700 employees per month, mostly doctors. Demand has doubled since this time last year. It’s basically anxiety issues that affect people – and we’re talking about severe anxiety, almost psychotic anxiety, for some.
“The pandemic has been catastrophic for the front line and for the public. If we went out and checked the mood of the audience, it was anxiety. There is a tremendous amount of anxiety ranging from people who are worried about their jobs, their livelihoods, their children, to those with existential anxiety – as I see it among doctors – who believe that it is it’s their fault, that they can’t save people, that there isn’t enough PPE [personal protective equipment], if only they could work harder, etc, etc.
“It’s normal to feel anxious right now. Much of the anxiety is caused by uncertainty, so there are many triggers. It is normal to be afraid and want to tell someone about it. The first people to talk to are your family at Christmas and ask them how they are feeling. I see a lot of anxiety, especially in young women. And some are realistic fears, like a job, others are unrealistic, like the end of the world. If you are having difficulty, there are many helplines. The GP – despite what they say – is there for you.
Dame Clare said she was concerned that GPs had to focus on the Covid-19 recall program, which could lead to delays in seeing patients with other health needs. “I’m worried about this. The patient I see in about 12 minutes – it’s not an emergency, but I know there is something wrong.
“The pandemic has created a tsunami of anxiety. This Christmas, we can just realize the power of family and the power of friends. Another lockdown would be horrible. Pandemics all go away after about five years, but five years is a long time. I remember my husband the first week of the pandemic saying “it will last two years”. I said not to be ridiculous – and it’s been two years now! “
Boris Johnson announced that there would be no more restrictions before Christmas, but did not rule out a two-week “circuit break” from December 28 if Covid cases continued to increase significantly, thus adding pressure on hospitals. Dame Clare, the first woman in nearly 70 years and the second in RCGP history to serve as both president and chair of the professional body, said she hoped the country could avoid a another foreclosure that would be “catastrophic” for the nation. Mental Health.
“I’m more worried about children’s mental health than adults,” she said. “Evidence shows that 15-24 year olds have struggled the most. So we should focus on them. When it comes to children who regularly miss school, we have waves of children who self-injure or suffer from eating disorders, so we should put resources in schools to support teachers, hand over school nurses in schools – so you don’t have to identify yourself as having a mental illness to seek help.
NHS staff each have their own unique way of dealing with the relentless workload they continue to face. “I went in and ate 5 liquorices of all kinds, which is what kept me going today. Even though now I feel sick, ”she laughed. “Everyone has their own mechanism for stopping after work. Mine watches consecutive episodes of Come Dine With Me.
For now, Dame Clare is looking forward to spending time with her family and friends this Christmas. “What I’m hoping for at Christmas is that people don’t start to think that their mental health will suddenly improve because it doesn’t, but just come back to first principles: which makes me less miserable, less anxious, it’s my family and friends – and if I can hang out with them then celebrate. That’s what’s going to happen this year – people are going to re-value those close relationships that have been taken slightly for granted in previous years. Just being together will be enough.