One in 10 health workers in England had suicidal thoughts during the Covid-19 pandemic, according to research that highlights the scale of its mental impact.
The risk of infection or death, moral distress, staff shortages, burnout and the emotional toll of battling the biggest public health crisis in a century significantly affected the mental wellbeing of health workers worldwide.
The World Health Organization declared in May that Covid-19 was no longer a “global health emergency” while saying that it remained a global health threat.
Health workers continue to tackle the disease on a daily basis. Globally, about 1.5m new cases were reported in the last 28 days, according to the WHO.
Now a study involving almost 20,000 responses to two surveys reveals the full extent of the mental health impact on workers at the height of the pandemic.
Research led by the University of Bristol analysed results from two surveys undertaken at 18 NHS trusts across England. The first was carried out between April 2020 and January 2021 and completed by 12,514 workers. The second – covering October 2020 to August 2021 – was completed by 7,160.
The first survey found that 10.8% of workers reported having suicidal thoughts in the preceding two months, while 2.1% attempted to take their own life in the same period. Some 11.3% of workers who did not report suicidal thoughts in the first survey reported them six months later, with 3.9% – about one in 25 – saying they had attempted to take their own life for the first time.
Responses showed that a lack of confidence in raising safety concerns, feeling unsupported by managers, and having to provide a lower standard of care were among the factors contributing to staff distress.
Dr Prianka Padmanathan, an honorary research fellow at Bristol’s Centre for Academic Mental Health and one of the study’s lead authors, said the findings highlighted the scale of mental health issues during a time of unprecedented concern.
“Our analyses show that among healthcare workers who had not experienced suicidal thoughts when first completing the survey, one in 10 reported experiencing them six months later,” Padmanathan said. “Additionally, almost one in 25 staff reported having attempted suicide for the first time.
“Improvements in mental health support and addressing structural issues around workforce and resources might significantly reduce suicidal thoughts and behaviour among healthcare workers.”
Simon Wessely, the chief investigator for the survey and professor of psychiatry at King’s College London, said: “Let’s not forget that having a job is usually better for our mental health than not having a job. But sometimes the nature of the job can increase stress and strain on the individual.
“In these cases, this work reminds us that the best source of support to maintain your health and wellbeing are not mental health professionals or the people in charge of your organisation. It is the person next above you – your immediate supervisor, manager or report – and the people around you: your friends, family and colleagues.”