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22 May 2020updated 09 Sep 2021 3:03pm

We need to support the mental health of Covid-19 workers

This Mental Health Awareness Week, the Liberal Democrats are proposing measures to reduce the long-term mental toll on frontline workers.

By Munira Wilson

It’s Mental Health Awareness Week, which seems particularly poignant this year as we consider the effects of the pandemic on the nation’s mental health. Undoubtedly, it’s been tough. People are feeling anxious about their financial security. Others are concerned about their health and that of their loved ones. Many are feeling isolated and lonely during lockdown.

One group who will be particularly affected are those working in health and social care. They have worked tirelessly to care for our loved ones and have gone above and beyond to tackle this dreadful virus.

Whilst we can hope the world gets a grip on the physical aspects of Covid-19 in the coming months, the mental health ramifications for these workers may last a lifetime. Thousands have lost colleagues, endured serious illness themselves or faced significant trauma in the course of their working days and nights.

Many staff have told me they feel exhausted and are close to burnout. One doctor described the feeling as constantly running at 120 per cent, noting that even before the crisis hit they were at 99 per cent. It is important the government cares for them as the coronavirus situation evolves, and supports them to reduce the long-term toll on their mental health. It is also crucial the government ensures staff have respite in the face of the ensuing tsunami of post-Covid demands, which will need to be managed alongside continuing Covid care, with the possibility of further Covid surges.

The immense efforts of all the ancillary staff working on the frontline must also be a priority. Often when people hear “healthcare worker”, they assume we are talking about doctors and nurses. But there will be many other types of support staff that will also be affected by what they have seen: cleaners, and porters to name a few. They need access to support too.

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Social care workers in particular must not be overlooked. Before the virus hit, the sector was already incredibly underfunded, overworked and fragmented. Now, with the virus, staff (typically working on minimum wage and zero-hour contracts) have told me they are experiencing things they have had no preparation for and they are given no additional support. It’s often described to me as a “sink or swim” scenario — you either develop your own coping mechanisms or you burn out from exhaustion. Some have expressed fears they will suffer from PTSD later when the dust eventually settles.

This situation is wholly unjust. While it is welcome that some measures have been introduced to help the mental health of staff, these often do not go far enough and social care is frequently overlooked.

That’s why the Liberal Democrats are proposing a series of measures to ensure no one slips through the net as the scale of the mental health impact of this crisis becomes clear.

Our proposals include a mental health support hotline open to staff 24 hours a day, seven days a week. Our hospitals and care services are staffed around the clock, so the support services should be too. In addition, we want to see measures in place to ensure that no NHS or care staff are penalised for days off due to mental or physical ill health, and to expand the number of support groups run for staff, by staff.

We also want to see a universal service of mental health support that every health and social care worker can access. Current provision can be patchy, depending on what area you are in. The military now have a clear mental health support pathway for personnel from encouraging mental health first aiders, through to fast access to professional mental health services for those who have served on the frontline line and need it (known as MAP). We should be looking to replicate this for our staff working on the Covid-19 frontline.

This week the health secretary agreed to look over these proposals, and he should do more than just look.

We must ramp up support now to avoid risking leaving a deep and painful scar on the mental health of our health and social care workers. They’ve stepped up to the plate to care for our loved ones. The government must now step up to the plate for them too.

Munira Wilson is the MP for Twickenham and the Liberal Democrat spokesperson for health and social care.

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