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Mental health disorders such as anxiety, depression and post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) are “particularly common” in nurses, doctors and other hospital staff during and immediately after pandemics, new research suggests.
A team of researchers at the University of East Anglia has today published a study exploring the mental toll on the health workforce from previous pandemics, such as those involving severe acute respiratory syndrome (SARS) and the Middle East respiratory syndrome (MERS).
“We hope our work will help inform hospital managers of the level of resources required to support staff through these difficult times”
Professor Richard Meiser-Stedman
The project analysed existing data across 19 studies, predominately based on the SARS outbreak in Asia and Canada, and which tended to focus on the “acute stage” of the pandemic – during and up to around six weeks after the pandemic, to estimate the prevalence of mental health conditions among staff.
From the results researchers estimated that more than a third of health staff who treated patients in hospital experienced anxiety and depression during the acute phase of a pandemic.
Six months after a pandemic the number of health workers experiencing anxiety or depression dropped to 17.9%, said the researchers, but this increased again to 29.3% after 12 months or longer.
Meanwhile, findings also suggested almost a quarter of health workers experienced PTSD symptoms during the acute phase of previous pandemics, and around 12% of staff still had such symptoms a year later.
Researchers “did not find any differences” between nurses and doctors experiencing mental health conditions, however they acknowledged that the data was “limited and more research is needed to explore this”.
Overall, the study found evidence that health staff working in pandemics were at an “increased risk of a range of adverse mental health outcomes” and that mental health disorders were “particularly common” for the health workforce immediately after an outbreak.
Those behind the research hoped the findings would highlight to hospital managers the impact that Covid-19 could be having on the mental health and wellbeing of staff.
However, they recognised further investigation was needed to “understand the long-term effects of psychological stress and trauma” on health workers during the coronavirus outbreak and how to “best support” staff during and after the pandemic.
A survey conducted by Nursing Times in the spring suggested that the Covid-19 crisis was taking a heavy toll on the wellbeing of nurses and colleagues, with almost all nursing staff reporting that they felt more stressed and anxious than usual.
The threat of the pandemic to nurse mental health was of such concern that Nursing Times launched the Covid-19: Are You OK? campaign to ensure the issue was being given the attention it deserved.
Commenting on the new study, Professor Richard Meiser-Stedman, from the university’s Norwich Medical School and co-author, said: “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.”
He added: “We estimated the prevalence of common mental health disorders in health care workers based in pandemic-affected hospitals.
“Overall, there are not enough studies examining the impact of pandemics on the mental health of healthcare staff”
“And we hope our work will help inform hospital managers of the level of resources required to support staff through these difficult times.”
Trainee clinical psychologist Sophie Allan, who worked on the research, stressed that the team had examined studies which used different methods and so “we need to be cautious about the results”.
“Overall, there are not enough studies examining the impact of pandemics on the mental health of healthcare staff,” she said.
“More research is needed that focusses on Covid-19 specifically and looks at the mental health of healthcare workers longer-term.”
The full team working on the project included trainee clinical psychologists: Ms Allan, Rebecca Bealey, Jennifer Birch, Toby Cushing, Sheryl Parke and Georgina Sergi – all from UEA’s Norwich Medical School.
They were supported by Professor Meiser-Stedman and Dr Michael Bloomfield from the University College London.
The title of the research was: ‘The prevalence of common and stress-related mental health disorders in healthcare workers based in pandemic-affected hospitals: a rapid systematic review and meta-analysis’ and was published in the European Journal of Psychotraumatology today.