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Coronavirus: We must plan for inevitable mental health issues among our medics, says Dr Gabriel Scally


Professor Gabriel Scally has warned healthcare staff and public may be traumatised

Professor Gabriel Scally has warned healthcare staff and public may be traumatised

Professor Gabriel Scally has warned healthcare staff and public may be traumatised

A leading Northern Ireland public health specialist has warned of a looming mental health crisis as medical professionals deal with "war scenes" in the battle against coronavirus.

Dr Gabriel Scally, a former NHS doctor and professor of Public Health at the University of Bristol, said healthcare staff are being faced with traumatic scenes on a daily basis.

He is warning that preparations must be made to help those who will present with mental health issues down the line.

The Belfast-born doctor, who conducted the Scoping Inquiry into the Cervical Check Screening Programme in the Republic, told the Belfast Telegraph: "Of great concern must be the trauma on health and social care staff who are witnessing scenes which perhaps they may never have dealt with before.

"Even if they are very experienced they may never have dealt with this number of deaths under such circumstances.

"Things are going to be very traumatic not just for normal NHS staff in hospitals but also all those care workers in nursing homes as outbreaks take their grip."

Professor Scally believes there is "a real danger" of people developing post-traumatic stress disorder and needing help in coming to terms with what they have been through.

When asked about the impact on those forced into lockdown in their homes for several months, Professor Scally said: "For those who might have a tendency to some psychological problems like people who are obsessive compulsive (OCD), we are really encouraging people to be obsessive and compulsive about things during this phase of the virus like handwashing, social distancing and staying indoors.

"Staying indoors could lead people into agoraphobia and a fear of going out through those doors again.

"That plus the sheer dislocation of normal life and the problems that have been identified about the potential for an increase in domestic violence or family disputes all indicates that the mental health price we are going to pay for this might be quite high."

He added: "It would be as well to start planning ahead for what we can do to try and help people with those mental health issues.

"We know there is a high incidence of suicide amongst soldiers coming home from war and in a health context these are war scenes that people are having to deal with.

"I'm worried about mental health in particular and hopefully suicide is something that we won't see.

"The potential will be there how ever long the lockdown takes to be lifted and there's certainly a need for some thought to be given to it.

"I know it's difficult when you are in the middle of all this to think about future mental health but we would be as well starting to think about these things now than when we find out about it afterwards."

Professor Scally added that there would also be "a price to be paid" for those patients awaiting cancer detection and treatment.

Last month the professor warned that the fact Northern Ireland and the Republic were adopting different approaches to the coronavirus could cost lives here.

He said he was delighted to see "the great memorandum of understanding" signed by the two departments of health this week to strengthen cooperation.

Professor Scally believes that while there will be pressure on politicians to withdraw the current restrictions once the number of deaths begin to "drop off", this cannot happen unless it is done in harmony.

"It has to be hand in hand. If we don't get it right and there are differences across the border it will be very difficult indeed," he said.

"It will mean Northern Ireland having to put some considerable effort into getting community testing, contact tracing and isolation all sorted out before there can be any talk of lifting restrictions."

Dr Scally also warned that there would have to be different work patterns when businesses reopen in terms of interpersonal contact and people getting to and from work "without having to crowd onto buses and trains".

"We can make progress in terms of getting back to normal but it will take a while," he said.

"The worst thing would be to do it too early without preparations in place and go straight back to the start again where we had the virus spread wildly within communities and then having to reimpose restrictions again.

"People might be less content the next time around to have restrictions placed on them."

Belfast Telegraph