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Shocking effects of COVID-19 stress on ICU nurses revealed

Critical care nurse leader says some are struggling with PTSD and mental health issues
Picture shows a medic in personal protective equipment looking distressed

Critical care nurse leader says some are struggling with post-traumatic stress disorder and other mental health issues

Intensive care staff have been so stressed by caring for patients during the pandemic that there have been cases of individuals being sectioned under the Mental Health Act, a critical care nurse leader has revealed.

Others have been diagnosed with post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), said British Association of Critical Care Nurses (BACCN) chair Nicki Credland.

Study found that poor mental health was common among ICU staff

Speaking to Nursing Standard, Ms Credland said: We are hearing of numerous stories about staff being off sick, needing mental health counselling and being diagnosed with post-traumatic stress.

We have also heard

Critical care nurse leader says some are struggling with post-traumatic stress disorder and other mental health issues

Picture shows a medic in personal protective equipment looking distressed
Picture: iStock

Intensive care staff have been so stressed by caring for patients during the pandemic that there have been cases of individuals being sectioned under the Mental Health Act, a critical care nurse leader has revealed.

Others have been diagnosed with post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), said British Association of Critical Care Nurses (BACCN) chair Nicki Credland.

Study found that poor mental health was common among ICU staff

Speaking to Nursing Standard, Ms Credland said: ‘We are hearing of numerous stories about staff being off sick, needing mental health counselling and being diagnosed with post-traumatic stress.

‘We have also heard of staff who have been sectioned under the Mental Health Act,’ she said, but was unable to give a figure for how many this involved.

A recent study by King’s College London found that poor mental health was common among intensive care unit (ICU) staff.

British Association of Critical Care Nurses (BACCN) chair Nicki Credland
Nicki Credland

From the nine ICUs in England that were approached to participate in the study, a total of 709 healthcare workers took part, completing anonymous web-based surveys in June and July 2020. Questions covered depression, anxiety symptoms, symptoms of PTSD, well-being and alcohol use.

Of those who responded, 344 (49%) were nurses, 291 (41%) were doctors and 74 (10%) were other healthcare workers.

Need to protect mental health and decrease risk of functional impairment

A total of 417 people (59%) reported their well-being as good, however 322 (45%) displayed symptoms of a mental health disorder (MHD), such as severe depression, severe anxiety or problem drinking. Around one in eight (13%) reported frequent thoughts of being better off dead or of self-harm in the previous two weeks.

The study found nurses’ mental health was worse than that of doctors (see table for findings, results may include more than one MHD symptom per person).

Its lead author, Neil Greenberg, from the institute of psychiatry at King’s College London, warned that the symptoms identified were likely to impair the ability of some ICU staff to provide high quality care.

‘These results indicate the need for a national strategy to protect the mental health, and decrease the risk of functional impairment, of ICU staff while they carry out their essential work during COVID-19,’ the study authors said.

Mental health disorder Number of doctors with symptoms Number of nurses with symptoms Number of other healthcare staff with symptoms
Moderate depression 76 167 19
Probable PTSD 92 168 20
Severe depression 13 30 2
Moderate anxiety 58 115 16
Severe anxiety 23 52 5
Problem drinking 20 28 3

Ms Credland said it was not surprising that ICU nurses had been so affected by the pandemic, and attributed this to a combination of factors.

‘Patients are dying, and because we can’t have relatives with the patients the emotional burden of that is being taken up by the nurse instead,’ she said. ‘The nurses will sit by the bedside and hold the patient’s hand when they die if the family can’t be there.

‘Usually, we would have one nurse to one patient. Now we have up to four patients being looked after by one ICU nurse.’


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