Mental health units could be hit with a surge in cases of Covid-19 because staff cannot get the protective equipment or testing they need, psychiatrists have warned.
Deaths among patients and mental health personnel could potentially end up as high as in care homes, the Royal College of Psychiatrists says.
“Without access to testing kits and the right protective equipment I fear we could see a care-home style crisis sweeping through mental health units, with many patients and staff contracting the virus,” Prof Wendy Burn, the colleges president, said.
Much of the normal activity of the NHSs has been suspended, and many GP and hospital appointments are being done by telephone and video links.
Despite that, though, many psychiatrists and other mental health staff are still seeing patients face-to-face, either in community or inpatient settings, including specialist eating disorders services. They are at increased risk of contracting Covid-19 or passing it on to patients or colleagues, Burn said.
A new survey by the college of 1,685 UK psychiatrists last week found what Burn said were “deeply worrying” flaws in the availability of both personal protective equipment (PPE) and testing for mental health staff.
It found, for example, that almost one in four (23%) psychiatrists across the four home nations could not access the right PPE, with Scotland (29%) the country with the worst shortage.
Only half the psychiatrists said they had been able to get a coronavirus test for themselves, and just 30% for their families. That is despite the health secretary, Matt Hancocks, recent assurances that any NHS staff member who wanted a test could have one.
Dr Adrian James, the colleges registrar, said: “A patient with or at risk of contracting Covid-19 is the same in all healthcare settings and they should be treated the same.
“Not all our buildings are set up to withstand infection control and were hearing some real fear from our frontline psychiatrists who are putting themselves and their families in danger every time they go to work.”
In addition, 42 researchers from around the world, including Prof David Gunnell from the University of Bristol, have formed the International COVID-19 Suicide Prevention Research Collaboration, to monitor the potential impact the crisis has on mental health.
Writing in the Lancet Psychiatry, the researchers say an increase in suicides is not inevitable, provided preventive action is taken imminently.
The authors write: “Suicide is likely to become a more pressing concern as the pandemic spreads and has longer-term effects on the general population, the economy and vulnerable groups.
“Preventing suicide therefore needs urgent consideration. The response must capitalise on, but extend beyond, general mental health policies and practices.”
People with psychiatric disorders might experience worsening symptoms and others might develop new mental health problems, especially depression, anxiety and post-traumatic stress, while loss of employment and financial worries may contribute to feelings of hopelessness, the group says.
Meanwhile, the Duke of Cambridge has backed an initiative to provide mental health support to those working against coronavirus.
Mind, Samaritans, Shout, Hospice UK and the Royal Foundation have launched Our Frontline, a combination of support and online resources for NHS workers, carers, emergency services and key workers.
Frontline staff and keyworkers can call or text a trained volunteer and access specially developed online resources, toolkits and advice to support their mental health and emotional wellbeing.
Prince William said: “Over the past few weeks, millions of frontline workers across the UK have put their physical and mental health on the line to protect us all during the coronavirus pandemic.
“Every day they confront traumatic situations at the same time as having to contend with their own worries about the risks to themselves and their families.”