Mental health problems such as post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), anxiety and depression are common among healthcare staff during and immediately after pandemics, according to new research from the University of East Anglia (UEA) in the United Kingdom.
Researchers there investigated how treating patients in past pandemics such as SARS (severe acute respiratory syndrome) and MERS (Middle East respiratory syndrome) affected the mental health of frontline staff.
They found that almost a quarter of healthcare workers (23.4%) experienced PTSD symptoms during the most intense “acute” phase of previous pandemic outbreaks, with 11.9% of carers still experiencing symptoms a year on.
They also looked at data on elevated levels of mental distress and found that more than a third of healthcare workers (34.1%) experienced symptoms such as anxiety or depression during the acute phase.
While this dropped to 17.9% after six months, it increased again to 29.3% after 12 months or longer.
The team hope that their work will help highlight the impact the Covid-19 pandemic could be having on the mental health of doctors and nurses around the world.
Prof Dr Richard Meiser-Stedman from UEA’s Norwich Medical School, said: “We know that Covid-19 poses unprecedented challenges to the (UK) NHS (National Health Service) and to healthcare staff worldwide.
“Nurses, doctors, allied health professionals and all support staff based in hospitals where patients with Covid-19 are treated are facing considerable pressure over a sustained period.
“In addition to the challenge of treating a large volume of severely unwell patients, frontline staff also have to contend with threats to their own physical health through infection, particularly as they have had to face shortages of essential personal protective equipment (PPE).”
He added: “The media has reported that healthcare workers treating coronavirus patients will face a ‘tsunami’ of mental health problems as a result of their work.
“We wanted to examine this by looking closely at the existing data from previous pandemics to better understand the potential impact of Covid-19.
“And we hope that our work will help inform hospital managers of the level of resources required to support staff through these difficult times.”
Prof Meiser-Stedman and Dr Michael Bloomfield from University College London provided support to a team of UEA trainee clinical psychologists who looked at 19 studies, which included data predominantly from the SARS outbreak in Asia and Canada.
The data primarily focused on the acute stage of the pandemic – during and up to around six weeks after the pandemic.
Trainee clinical psychologist Sophie Allan said: “We found that post-traumatic stress symptoms were elevated during the acute phase of a pandemic and at 12 months post-pandemic.
“There is some evidence that some mental health symptoms such as these post-traumatic stress symptoms get better naturally over time, but we cannot be sure about this.
“The studies we looked at had very different methods, for example, they used different questionnaires about mental health, so we need to be cautious about the results.
“We didn’t find any differences between doctors and nurses experiencing PTSD or other psychiatric conditions, but the available data was limited and more research is needed to explore this.
“Overall, there are not enough studies examining the impact of pandemics on the mental health of healthcare staff.
“More research is needed that focuses on Covid-19 specifically and looks at the mental health of healthcare workers longer-term.”
The study was published on Oct 16 (2020) in the European Journal of Psychotraumatology.