NHS Staff Experiencing Mental Health Crises on ‘Scale of War Veterans’
Support services for NHS staff have seen a huge surge in demand in recent months, Byline Times can reveal
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NHS staff are facing mental health crises similar to that experienced by many war veterans, amid record backlogs and understaffing, Byline Times has been told.
Peter Welsh, a mental health support worker for an NHS trust in the south-west who assists GP surgeries, said he is seeing a major increase in NHS staff approaching GPs with mental health issues including anxiety and symptoms of Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD).
“In my own trust, they provide mental health support for military veterans,” Mr Welsh said. “They’re more likely to be homeless, with physical and mental health problems. Now with NHS veterans – whether they’re in work or have left – we are seeing similar attritional damage.
“I’m struck by how many NHS professionals are contacting their GPs for mental health help – from cleaners, to admin staff and doctors. I’m feeling it really strongly. Hospital doctors are seeing family doctors about burnout.”
He warned of the “hidden toll” of staffing pressures and asked “how are these guys going to cope in the years to come?”
“I include myself in that,” Mr Welsh added. “It’s the hidden toll. You get irritable, and families get short shrift. The day-in, day-out relentlessness of it impacts family life.”
For him, the recent focus on strikes by NHS professionals masks a mental health tipping point. “Over the visuals of picket lines, there’s so much more going on,” he said. “There are practitioners crying in surgeries.”
GPs themselves are also turning to fellow GPs for mental health help.
Dr Kieran Sharrock, acting chair for the British Medical Association’s England GP committee, said there has been a significant increase in GPs requiring support for mental health issues in recent years.
Between December 2021 and November 2022, for instance, there were just under 6,500 calls to the BMA’s counselling service – almost triple pre-pandemic levels. More than half – 60% – of those calls came specifically from GPs, highlighting the magnitude of the problem within general practice.
Dr Sharrock added that, when the COVID treatment backlog is “combined with persistent criticism and unfair attacks on the profession by politicians and sections of the media”, the impact on staff’s health and wellbeing can be “devastating”.
“Staff are experiencing physical, mental and emotional burnout; we are feeling the full impact of a lack of prioritisation of the wellbeing of doctors, who are leaving the health service in droves,” he told Byline Times.
Peter Welsh has also noticed that admin staff – often “demonised as pen-pushers” – are coming to surgeries in “floods of tears”. “They don’t know where to turn,” he said. “They are under immense pressure to perform and keep service going.”
A sense of national purpose during the pandemic – with NHS workers praised as heroes – has given way to despair, according to Mr Welsh.
“There was a certain element of excitement and adrenaline,” he said. “But now that’s gone… NHS staff are often the worst at describing their own distress. It’s hard to say ‘I can’t cope’. They seek help late. Others might say it’s just a storm. But it feels chronic.”
Dr Julia Grace Patterson, who runs the pressure group EveryDoctorUK, told Byline Times that the stress and pressure on health workers now is “unrelenting”.
“Staff are resilient but there’s no break in the pressure,” she said. “It runs people down. I know many doctors who have had to take time off sick in the last two years.”
At its root, she believes, is a sense of “moral injury” – staff are going to work without enough resources and know they are not providing the care they want to. “That creates a huge amount of stress and guilt,” Dr Grace Patterson added.
She echoed Peter Welsh’s view that the NHS crisis is hitting workers’ relationships: “They say ‘my job is impacting too strongly on my personal and home life’. Parents are not spending time with their kids.”
Health workers have also had to face “scapegoating” in the media and by right-wing politicians, she said – particularly the narrative that GPs are to blame for A&E pressures.
“The whole system is in collapse now,” Dr Grace Patterson said. “It’s been felt most in primary care – GPs are working harder than ever, and doing more appointments than ever, breaking NHS records. But outlets write pointed, scathing pieces about ‘lazy’ staff. I know GPs who’ve left their careers as a result of that.”
Others might say it’s just a storm. But it feels chronicPeter Welsh, mental health support worker
Claire Goodwin-Fee – who founded Frontline19, which runs a free and confidential service for frontline healthcare workers – told Byline Times: “There has been a huge increase in distress levels in staff and we are currently supporting 9,000 staff with their emotional well-being every week as a very small non-profit.”
The majority of referrals the organisation receives are from health workers struggling with anxiety, burnout, trauma and PTSD.
“They are physically and mentally exhausted,” she said. “They feel terribly let down and feel most anxious about unsafe patient-to-staff ratios and how this endangers the patients. There is a lack of staffing full stop and recruitment to roles takes nearly six months at best.”
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Frontline19 said its recent survey of frontline NHS staff found that 76% had felt despair or hopelessness in recent months, and all reported that they “did not believe anyone outside of the NHS/healthcare had any idea of what it is like to work within the system and how bad it was”.
“I fear NHS veterans will tread similar paths as military veterans in terms of dislocation and sorrow for decades to come,” Mr Welsh said. “Then who will help them or help me?”
For the first time in history, tens of thousands of Royal College of Nursing members took part in strikes in December to demand “fair pay and improved patient safety” – with improving staffing levels central to their calls. Members will strike again on Wednesday 18 January and Thursday 19 January in England.
An NHS spokesperson said: “There is no question that the last three years in particular have been very challenging for people working in the NHS, which is why local and national employers have taken significant steps to support all our staff so they can continue to provide the care patients need, including access to a range of health and wellbeing support, flexible working policies and other initiatives to improve work-life balance.”
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