GPs have faced a barrage of attacks in the press and briefings from government over the pandemic. It’s taking its toll, Josiah Mortimer hears

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Family doctors are having to see other GPs and seek mental health support in record numbers, Byline Times has learnt, with local surgeries picking up the pieces from the NHS treatment backlog. 

The number of self-referrals to the NHS Practitioner Health Service, a mental health service dedicated to health professionals has hit 150 new patients per week, rising to 184 at the end of December, with most of them being doctors.

That compares to 150 per year when the service started in 2009. The patients attending are mainly suffering from anxiety and depression, Byline Times understands. Increasing numbers describe symptoms of guilt, hopelessness, and fear that they cannot deliver the care they should be due to the constraints on their time and exhaustion. 

Dame Clare Gerada, Chair of Doctors in Distress, Ambassador of Practitioner Health & President of the Royal College of GPs, said that whilst all doctors are suffering, the group which appears to be in most distress are general practitioners. “It is hardly surprising given the constant negative media and political attention directed at them in recent months, coupled with their impossible task of meeting demand against falling capacity (time, staff, resources) to do so,” Dame Clare told Byline Times.

Many GPs feel they have been vilified since the pandemic with government figures claiming they are failing to see patients in-person. But figures released late last year showed local doctors are seeing more patients than ever before as record under-staffing in the NHS puts more pressure on surgeries.

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Dr Daniel Gearon, founder and CEO of the non-profit support service You Okay, Doc? and a core surgical trainee in cardiothoracics at the Royal Papworth Hospital (Cambridge) said their confidential text line has seen a large increase in the past quarter, with 30 new doctors joining their service for mental health support. 

The non-profit also runs a service called The Huddle ― a psychotherapy and peer support group for health care staff ― which is restarting in February due to “tough” winter pressures. The group has 50 ambassadors that are doctors, mostly GPs.

The findings come after 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).

Peter Walsh said: “In my own trust, they provide mental health support for military veterans…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.”

It is hardly surprising given the constant negative media and political attention directed at them

Dame Clare Gerada, Chair of Doctors in Distress

Between December 2021 and November 2022 there were just around 6,500 calls to the counselling service of the BMA, which represents GPs, 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.

An NHS spokesperson said last week: “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.”

If you are a health worker in need of mental health support, Doctors in Distress is a charity dedicated to protecting mental health and stopping suicide in health workers in the UK.

If you have a political or social story that needs telling, get in touch with Josiah Mortimer confidentially by emailing josiah@bylinetimes.com

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