ICU staff traumatised, with half suffering PTSD and anxiety

India McTaggart
A nurse works on a patient in the ICU (Intensive Care Unit) in St George's Hospital in Tooting, south-west London. - Victoria Jones/PA
A nurse works on a patient in the ICU (Intensive Care Unit) in St George's Hospital in Tooting, south-west London. - Victoria Jones/PA

Intensive care staff were so traumatised during the first wave that nearly half have shown symptoms of PTSD, problem drinking and other conditions, a study has found.

Experts at King’s College London have blamed the scale of mental health problems on the high number of patient deaths, combined with the difficulty of providing decent end-of-life care.

They also found that the challenges of communicating with loved-ones who were barred from wards contributed to the stress, as well as fear of catching the virus.

Published in the journal Occupational Medicine, the results showed that poor mental health was more likely among nurses working in ICU than doctors or any other healthcare staff.

Professor Neil Greenberg, who led the study, said: "The severity of symptoms we identified are highly likely to impair some ICU staff's ability to provide high quality care as well as negatively impacting on their quality of life." 

More than 700 healthcare workers from nine intensive care units across England took part in an anonymous web-based survey in June and July last year.

The respondents comprised 291 doctors, 344 nurses, and 74 other healthcare staff. 

While over half - 59 per cent - reported good wellbeing, a 45 per cent were found to meet the clinical threshold for either for a range of psychiatric problems: 40 per cent for PTSD (post-traumatic stress disorder), 11 per cent for  severe anxiety, seven per cent for problem drinking, and six per cent for severe depression.

More than one in eight respondents reported having frequent thoughts of being better off dead or of self-harm in the previous two weeks. 

Professor Greenberg said the results “should serve as a stark reminder to NHS managers of the pressing need to protect the mental health of ICU workers now in order to ensure they can deliver vital care to those in need”.

The new King’s study follows a recent wide-scale survey by the British Medical Association, which suggested high levels of depression and anxiety among NHS staff.

Professor Greenberg called for the urgent adoption of a “national strategy to protect staff mental health and decrease the risk of functional impairment of ICU staff".