Nearly four in 10 NHS staff in intensive care units reported symptoms of post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) following the first wave of Covid-19, according to a King’s College London study.
Thoughts of self-harm, problem drinking, and symptoms of depression and anxiety were also prevalent among clinical staff who played a major role in treating the sickest patients in the early stages of the pandemic.
Intensive care unit and anaesthetic staff in six English hospitals were sent an anonymised web-based survey in June and July 2020.
Mental health in the NHS
Of the 709 who responded, 45.4% reported signs of poor mental health, including PTSD (39.5%); severe anxiety (11.3%); problem drinking (7.2%); and severe depression (6.3%).
The rate of probable PTSD among clinical staff is around nine times that of the rate seen in the general population, the study’s authors say.
Some 13.4% reported frequent thoughts of being better off dead or of hurting themselves in the previous two-week period. These feelings were more prevalent among nurses (19.2%) than doctors (7.6%) or other clinical staff (9.5%).
The study says: “ICU staff have faced a particularly challenging time frequently working in areas where the risk of Covid-19 exposure is high for long periods, wearing PPE, with the challenges of managing staff and equipment shortages on a daily basis especially during the first wave.
“At times this had made it difficult for staff to deliver a normal standards of care. The high rate of mortality amongst Covid-19 patients admitted to ICU, coupled with difficulty in communication and providing adequate end-of-life support to patients and their next of kin, because of visiting restrictions, has been a specific stressor for all staff working in ICU.”
It says that stressors including long working hours, childcare, difficulty getting PPE and regular exposure to ethical dilemmas may have also contributed to mental ill health during the period.
It notes that UK ICU nurses are more likely to be younger adults and female – a demographic that has faced an increased risk of poor mental health during the pandemic.
It concludes: “Given the requirement for ICU staff to highly functional as they care for critically ill patients, these data suggest that is imperative to ensure that adequate support is provisioned by NHS employers who have a moral and legal duty to appropriately safeguard staff wellbeing.
“Furthermore, unless employers properly protect the mental health of ICU staff, then they are more likely to function poorly with a consequential impact on their ability to deliver high quality patient care which is needed now more than ever.”