Doctors Are Experiencing Mental Health Crisis Due To ‘Toppling Pressure’ Of Coronavirus
The pandemic has undeniably taken its toll on everyone’s mental health, but some people whose mental wellbeing isn’t spoken about enough is that of doctors’.
Prior to the pandemic, doctors’ mental health was already an ongoing concern. A 2015 survey found that 85% had experienced mental health issues with one in 10 having had suicidal feelings.
76% of those who took part in the survey five years ago cited a heavy workload as having a high impact on their mental health, so you can only imagine what it’s been like in the midst of a global pandemic.
One doctor who has been working on the frontline during the ongoing health crisis is Germany-based Professor Dr. Rüdiger Heicappell. Working in the medical profession for almost 30 years, Dr. Heicappell described working in the current circumstances as ‘very challenging’.
He said to UNILAD, ‘[My job] has been very challenging lately and like any other doctor, it’s been tough to adjust to new, very strict, and ever-changing rules. Organisational structures during the pandemic have changed frequently and, in general, every single doctor has more on their plate than before.’
‘The fear of catching COVID-19 whilst at work lingers on my mind daily, toppled with the pressure of keeping patients and everyone around me safe,’ added Dr. Heicappell.
Despite his fears, Dr. Heicappell said that he tries to remain positive during these unprecedented times and limits his time on social media.
I’ve been trying to stay optimistic – keeping in mind that there are new vaccines and vaccinations taking place worldwide, I’m very hopeful for major improvements in the near future.
Dr. Heicappell continued, ‘On top of that, I try to keep my exposure of social media and news channels quite limited, as it doesn’t always reflect the situation on the ground and adds additional stress.’
Dame Clare Gerada, a doctor of 45 years, also expressed how her work has taken a toll on her mental health, especially as she contracted the virus at the beginning of the pandemic last year.
Speaking about returning to work in mid-March after having contracted COVID, Dr. Gerada said, ‘In retrospect, I think was stupid working so soon after contracting COVID. I think I was still sick. I didn’t sleep for six weeks and it literally was a marathon. I’ve got a wonderful team who I worked alongside, but it really was difficult.’
In regards to the impact on her mental heath, she said to UNILAD:
I became fractious, irritable and, did I become down? Yes, yes I did, especially as I was still recovering from COVID. There was also a bit of excitement and a sense of purpose [at the beginning], but since then it’s been a real need to keep the show on the show and keep offering care to our patients.
To take care of her mental wellbeing, Dr. Gerada expressed how it has proven more difficult at the moment as she, like everyone else, hasn’t been able to do the things she would usually do.
She explained, ‘The things I would normally do to try take care of my mental health are going out with friends, family, going to the theatre or the pictures, having a holiday – things that are now impossible for me, and for everybody else. There’s only so much interest you can have in cooking and baking bread.’
Dr. Gerada continued:
I’ve been trying to cut down my alcohol, trying to exercise, but things are so busy. […] I’ve brought in supervision for myself, so I have weekly supervision for all aspects of my work, but in particular to talk about the front facing work I do to make sure that I’m not getting bogged down with the emotional impact of what I do.
In the wake of the pandemic, charity Doctors in Distress (DiD) has seen an increase in doctors seeking treatment for their mental health. Explaining the work the charity does, founder of DiD Amandip Sidhu said to UNILAD, ‘DiD is a prevention organisation and the groups we run are in response to what we are asked for by doctors, for doctors.’
He further explained:
We have deployed groups for doctors with Long COVID (the first of its kind in the UK), support for Black doctors facing/faced racism and critically, we are in the process of deploying a specialist support group for doctors and nurses who work in ITU and are treating life and death COVID patients.
As we have seen on the news, the level of work and intensity is impacting healthcare workers negatively, we want to help mitigate that.
Amandip founded the charity after sadly losing his brother, a former doctor, to suicide in 2018. Amandip said his brother, Dr. Jagdip Sidh, took his own life because ‘he was burnt out and felt he had nowhere to turn to for help and the only seemingly logical way out of his distress was to take his own life’.
Following Jagdip’s death, Amandip came to realise that his brother hadn’t been alone in his struggles and therefore created DiD support doctors with their mental health. The charity has a vision of zero suicides amongst doctors by 2025, something which Amandip hopes to achieve by ‘reducing stigma amongst doctors and health systems to allow doctors to feel comfortable and able to reach out for help without shame and the fear of judgement and retribution from their peers’.
In terms of how doctors can take care of their mental heath right now, Amandip gave four pieces advice:
- If you are feeling under pressure, accept that it is fine to feel like that and acceptable. No doctor is superhuman and you cannot cope with an impossible workload in an imperfect health system
- Reach out for help to those around you, or special support services. No one is judging you, and you are allowed to feel vulnerable and in need of support
- If you think someone around you needs help, ask them and check in with them in a compassionate way and offer an ear of support, especially if you are in a leadership position but don’t forget to neglect your own needs
- Understand where you can access help and accept that you need to maintain your own health to look after patients. You will become a better doctor/caregiver if you are operating at full strength and with your batteries “fully charged”
Doctors’ mental health needs to be taken into consideration more now than ever, and, hopefully, it will continue to be considered once the pandemic is over.
If you’re experiencing distressing thoughts and feelings, the Campaign Against Living Miserably (CALM) is there to support you. They’re open from 5pm–midnight, 365 days a year. Their national number is 0800 58 58 58 and they also have a webchat service if you’re not comfortable talking on the phone.
Or, if you’ve been affected by any of these issues and want to speak to someone in confidence, please don’t suffer alone. Call Samaritans for free on their anonymous 24-hour phone line on 116 123.
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