LONDON (Reuters) – Nearly half of staff working in intensive care units (ICU) in England in the COVID-19 pandemic have severe anxiety, depression or post-traumatic stress disorder, with some reporting feeling they’d be better off dead, according to a study published on Wednesday.
Many ICU nurses and doctors meet the clinical threshold for PTSD, anxiety or problem drinking, and symptoms are so severe that some reported contemplating self-harm or suicide.
Such acutely poor mental health among ICU staff caring for critically ill and dying COVID-19 patients is likely to impair their ability to work effectively and harm their quality of life, the researchers leading the study said.
More than 81,000 people have died of COVID-19 in Britain, the world’s fifth-highest official death toll in the global pandemic.
More than 3 million people in Britain have tested positive for COVID-19 disease and the government says hospitals and intensive care wards are on the brink of being overwhelmed.
The pressure on ICU staff — who work with very sick patients for long periods in areas where the risk of COVID-19 exposure is high and where staff and equipment shortages pose problems on a daily basis — has been particularly high.
“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 … are very likely to have been highly challenging stressors for all staff working in ICUs,” said Neil Greenberg, a professor at the Institute of Psychiatry, Psychology & Neuroscience at King’s College London who co-led the research.
The study, published in the journal Occupational Health, was conducted in June and July – before Britain began experiencing its latest surge in infections.
It found that among more than 700 healthcare workers in nine ICUs across England, 45% met the threshold for probable clinical significance for at least one of four serious mental health disorders: severe depression (6%), PTSD (40%), severe anxiety (11%) or problem drinking (7%).
Most worryingly, the researchers said, more than one in eight of those in the study reported frequent self-harming or suicidal thoughts – such as thinking of being better off dead, or of hurting themselves – in the previous two weeks.
The findings “highlight the potential profound impact that COVID-19 has had on the mental health of frontline UK staff,” Greenberg said, and show an urgent need for mental health services to be promptly accessible for all healthcare workers.
Reporting by Kate Kelland, editing by Timothy Heritage