UK's critical care staff suffer trauma and severe anxiety as result of Covid-19

Study of more than 700 healthcare workers in nine English ICUs shows 40 per cent suffer post-traumatic stress disorder

A healthcare worker cares for a Covid-19 patient in the ICU ward at the Robert Bosch Hospital in Stuttgart, Germany, on Tuesday, Jan. 12, 2021. Chancellor Angela Merkel warned that Germany faces hard lockdown measures into late March if authorities fail to contain a fast-spreading variant of the coronavirus. Photographer: Andreas Gebert/Bloomberg

Nearly half of staff working in intensive care units in England during the Covid-19 pandemic have severe anxiety, depression or post-traumatic stress disorder, a study published on Wednesday suggests.

Some reported feeling that they would be better off dead, the study showed.

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 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 said.

Covid-19 has killed more than 81,000 people in Britain, the world's fifth-highest official death toll in the global pandemic.

More than three million people in Britain have tested positive for Covid-19 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 staff and equipment shortages pose problems every day, is particularly high.

"The high rate of mortality among 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 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 health workers, 45 per cent met the threshold for probable clinical significance for at least one of four serious mental health disorders.

They were severe depression (6 per cent), PTSD (40 per cent), severe anxiety (11 per cent) or problem drinking (7 per cent).

Most worryingly, the researchers said, more than one in eight of those in the study reported frequent thoughts of self-harm or suicidal feelings in the previous two weeks.

The findings "highlight the potentially profound impact that Covid-19 has had on the mental health of frontline UK staff", Prof Greenberg said.

They also show an urgent need for mental health services to be promptly accessible to all healthcare workers, he said.