Coronavirus: frontline medical staff traumatised by watching patients and colleagues die

Arab Health conference in Dubai hears how medical staff suffered from acute stress, loneliness and insomnia

Dubai, United Arab Emirates, Mar 03, 2014 - 1:33pm - A doctor and a nurse carries a patient at the Trauma Centre of Rashid hospital. ( Jaime Puebla / The National Newspaper ) Jen Bell - National
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The coronavirus pandemic has done serious damage to the mental health of frontline workers around the world, experts have said.

The Arab Health conference in Dubai heard how medical staff were forced to put aside the pain of watching colleagues and loved ones die.

They risked their mental health as they continued to do their duty with many workers – including those in the UAE – suffering acute stress and insomnia.

Many were far from home and suffered from feelings of isolation and insomnia, conference goers heard.

Many healthcare workers were traumatised from the pressure of having to make life and death decisions that you never want to have to make

“Many healthcare workers were traumatised by the pressure of having to make life-and-death decisions that you never want to have to make,” said Dr Adrian James, president of the Royal College of Psychiatrists, London.

“It’s shocking to have colleagues that you are close to, and you know their families as well, who have died from Covid-19.”

Dr James said medical staff were also affected by having to look on helplessly as patients, many of whom they had grown attached to, suffered the effects of Covid-19.

The mental health of doctors and nurses in the UAE suffered from having to continue on the front line as the pandemic unfolded, one of the country's leading mental health experts said.

A study of more than 2,000 people was conducted last year by the Department of Health – Abu Dhabi looking into the effect working through the pandemic had on health care workers.

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"The data showed us the people who were most affected were single expatriates, with the majority of them working in nursing," said Dr Nahida Ahmed, consultant psychiatrist and chairwoman of mental health at Abu Dhabi Health Services (Seha).

“The symptoms they reported were mostly in terms of acute stress disorders.

“A lot of them were having insomnia and were constantly worried for the safety of family members, more so than their own.”

She praised the UAE government for its initiatives to promote the mental wellbeing of medical staff, including a free phone counselling service.

Dr Ahmed said the Frontline Heroes Office was a positive example of how the UAE was looking after the mental health of its doctors and nurses.

It was created last year to promote the wellbeing of those working on the frontlines, as well as their families. There are more than 100,000 key workers on its books.

In April, Dr Maha Barakat, director general of the office, said 14 frontline staff had died in the UAE since the beginning of the pandemic.

Delegates at the conference also heard how healthcare workers, especially those who worked in countries far away from their families, had not seen loved ones for more than a year and a half, another factor that took its toll on their mental health.

“There has been a surge in healthcare professionals seeking advice about their mental health,” said Subodh Dave, dean of the Royal College of Psychiatrists, London.

“The psychological impact has been absolutely huge, with many feeling loneliness at not being able to see their families and colleagues in person. I know that I have not seen my own family in 18 months.”

The problem of loneliness and isolation was more pronounced for international workers, he said.

Arab Health, meanwhile, runs at the World Trade Centre until Thursday.