The government has been urged to arrange post-traumatic stress disorder support for frontline medical staff, whose mental health may be at risk due to the stress of working through the Covid-19 pandemic.
In a letter to the health secretary, Matt Hancock, the shadow minister for mental health, Rosena Allin-Khan, said staff needed access to PTSD support and talking therapies, and that monitoring for increased suicide risk should be put in place.
“NHS and care staff are breaking down – I see it first-hand, working shifts. It is simply heartbreaking to see the toll this virus is taking on our frontline staff,” she said. “Our frontline NHS and care staff are doing fantastic work in extremely difficult circumstances. They risk their lives every day in order to protect us. Unless our staff are protected, they cannot continue their vital work of keeping us all safe.”
Allin-Khan wrote that staff are under increased pressure due to a fear of spreading the virus to patients and loved ones, PPE shortages and witnessing the deaths of patients. “At this time of crisis, staff mental health must be a priority now. It simply cannot be an afterthought once the acute stage of the crisis is over.”
Speaking to the health and social care select committee on Friday, Claire Murdoch, the national mental health director for NHS England, confirmed that the NHS was planning for PTSD referrals for frontline staff. “We know it’s been a high-stress environment. We’re planning mental health support right now,” she said.
She said ensuring hospital teams offered support through good supervision, debriefs after shifts and making sure shift patterns allowed staff to recuperate would be crucial. “The military are very good at this,” she said.
Murdoch added that trusts were investing more in occupational and mental health support for staff and that national helplines with third sector organisations, such as Samaritans, had been set up to support staff.
Responding to MPs’ questions, Murdoch also said there appeared to have been an overall drop of around 30-40% in referrals of members of the public to mental health services. But she added that there was no evidence currently for a spike in suicides or self-harm. “We absolutely have not seen that,” she said. “We’re pretty certain that levels of anxiety and distress will have increased for young people. Everyone’s more worried. Lots of people are sleeping less.”
The committee heard further evidence that cancer services were being disrupted, with urgent two-week referrals dropping by 63% last week, which Dame Cally Palmer, the national cancer director for NHS England, said was a concern. “Early detection is vital for survival,” she said.
She added that it was crucial that screening programmes, many of which have been paused, be restarted. “There have been no national instructions on screening,” she said. “It’s important to make sure that rescheduled screening take place, especially bowel cancer. Cancers are slow growing so 4-6 weeks should not affect survival but we need to get that turned back on.”
In the UK and Ireland, Samaritans can be contacted on 116 123 or email email@example.com or firstname.lastname@example.org. In the US, the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline is 1-800-273-8255. In Australia, the crisis support service Lifeline is 13 11 14. Other international helplines can be found at www.befrienders.org.