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Covid-19: Doctors need proper mental health support, says BMA

BMJ 2020; 369 doi: https://doi.org/10.1136/bmj.m2192 (Published 01 June 2020) Cite this as: BMJ 2020;369:m2192

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  1. Ingrid Torjesen
  1. London, UK

Nearly a third of doctors have reported that mental health conditions linked to their work —such as anxiety, depression, and burnout—have been made worse by the covid-19 pandemic, a survey by the BMA has found.

“Proper” and ongoing support should be made available to all NHS staff to help them deal with the effects of work related stresses and anxiety related to covid-19, the BMA said. The association said that its own wellbeing support services have seen a 40% increase in use over the past three months, including from those who are feeling anxious about going to work to face unknown situations.

Doctors and healthcare workers have been painted as “heroes” during the pandemic, said David Wrigley, BMA council deputy chair and wellbeing lead, but he warned, “They are not superhuman. They need to feel able to seek help and that help must be readily available.”

The BMA’s latest tracker survey, conducted between 26 and 28 May, had more than 7000 responses and 2000 personal accounts. It found that 41% of doctors were dealing with depression, anxiety, stress, burnout, emotional distress, or another mental health condition relating to or made worse by their work, and 29% of the 7821 respondents said that these had got worse during the pandemic.

Doctors say that long working hours in unfamiliar settings, having to work in personal protective equipment (PPE) for long periods, worries about accessing adequate PPE, fear of contracting covid-19 and passing it on to their loved ones, seeing many patient deaths, and breaking bad news to bereaved families were all having an impact on their wellbeing.

“I am frequently tearful about all those who have died; continuously fearful of contracting covid-19 and secondarily infecting my family,” one doctor told the BMA, while another said, “Everything at work has been more frustrating and exhausting—like wading through treacle.”

At the same time, the lockdown has meant that doctors have been unable to recharge their batteries; there is no socialising and many have isolated themselves from their families to protect them.

“The fatigue after wearing PPE all day cannot be underestimated. It impacts on what I physically and mentally could do after a shift,” one doctor said. “Seeing people dying, receiving and breaking bad news, no socialising outside work to refresh and recharge—all these factors increased the level of anxiety and depression,” added another.

Wrigley said, “The effects of covid-19 will be felt for a long time, both in terms of the impact on the NHS and the long term mental wellbeing of our staff. Even as the number of cases fall, doctors and their colleagues will continue to feel the pressure.

“Therefore, there must be proper support available to all NHS staff not only during the pandemic, but beyond. Supporting the wellbeing of the health workforce must be a top priority in the long term.”

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