Monday 16 November 2020 4:20 am

The Covid mental health epidemic is threatening doctors too

Dr Steph Colbourn is a GP at Portland Medical and an advocate for digital triage tool Doctorlink

Many impacts of the coronavirus pandemic are easy to see: facemasks and visors, closed restaurants and shops, deserted high streets. 

Yet one consequence of this wretched virus — the one I fear most — cannot be seen. It is the devastating impact on our mental health. 

As the pandemic has worn on, people from all walks of life have started to voice their mental health struggles. 

Read more: Locking down care homes risks the very lives we are trying to protect

So on behalf of the medical community, I feel compelled to speak out. 

As a doctor, I am acutely aware of benefits that talking about this subject can bring. But I won’t pretend my struggles are easy to admit. 

When training as a doctor, I knew my job would be hard: long hours, difficult decisions, breaking bad news. But I never imagined it would affect my mental health as it did. I took my first period of sick leave during my Foundation Year 1 and my problems followed on from there. 

I kept thinking that once qualified, I would finally be able to work on my mental health, by following a routine and ensuring I took time to switch off. Yet being a GP presented itself with new mental challenges. Often, patients offload their anxieties onto their GP, so you sometimes feel as though you’re doing the role of therapist as well as doctor. It’s an emotionally taxing demand — it’s hard to keep filling up everyone else’s cup, while your own is completely empty. 

Mental health struggles are not uncommon amongst the medical community — one survey reported that 85 per cent of doctors have experienced mental health issues. Now, as we near the end of the most exhausting year the NHS has seen, I would anticipate this figure to be even higher. 

You might not expect the pressures of crowded intensive care units and shortage of hospital beds to filter down to primary care. You will have seen in the press how, when the first wave came, those infected with Covid-19 needed hospital admissions and ventilators. 

Yet those cases, tragic though they were, were not the majority. Many thousands of people infected with the virus were well enough to stay at home and be managed by their GP. They came to us with their questions. How long will it last? How do I self-isolate? When can I see my loved ones again? For many weeks, we spent our time attempting to ease these concerns, while knowing next to nothing ourselves. 

The pace was relentless, especially for anyone already struggling with their mental health. Having lived with depression for so long, I know when I’m headed towards a low and have learnt exactly how to manage it: I spend time with my friends, I go to a cafe to read, or go see a film. 

Yet with lockdown restrictions, I couldn’t do any of these things. As my mental health deteriorated, I feared I would become so sick that I would have to stay home — unable to treat my patients, but also unable to treat myself.

That’s the thing about lockdowns — they are implemented to protect us, but are in fact the perfect storm for our mental health. Is it any wonder, when after nearly a year of living a dramatically different lifestyle, we now face further restrictions, increasing uncertainty, and no foresight as to when it will all end?

We as a society are facing more mental strain than ever before, but through lockdown, all our coping mechanisms have been snatched away, at the exact moment at which we need them most. 

Thankfully, I work at a surgery where I’ve been able to be honest about my struggles from the offset. Our practice is also technically advanced, with a superb digital triage system in place. This technology has helped us to prioritise the patients in most need of care and so reduce administrative burden. Yet this is not common among my peers. For many, the sudden shift to technology at the outbreak of the pandemic was wholly new and an additional struggle. The response from senior management at some surgeries was simply “be more resilient”.

Although I was lucky to be supported, I still struggled. I can only imagine how my colleagues in less prepared environments coped. I know I am good at my job and I love nothing more than helping my patients, but for the sake of the 1.4 million NHS workers, the industry needs to change. 

First, there needs to be a systemic implementation of digital support systems. I have seen first-hand how this can alleviate the burden not just on the system, but on the doctors, who provide crucial care to those who need it. 

Second, there needs to be a shift in attitude. I have always been able to open up to my managers about my problems, but not everyone is so lucky — stigmas still remain. To get through the next wave of this crisis and those which will surely come after, GPs must feel more comfortable to be honest about their mental health struggles. 

We must not be overlooked in the mental health epidemic.

Read more: Young Britons worst hit by Covid lockdowns, says new study

Main image credit: Getty

City A.M.'s opinion pages are a place for thought-provoking views and debate. These views are not necessarily shared by City A.M.