Hundreds of GPs a month seek mental health support as COVID-19 pressure bites

More than 200 GPs a month are seeking mental health support as COVID-19 drives up pressure on the NHS - and demand for help is rising fastest among doctors in primary care, figures from a confidential support service suggest.

Photo: Mike Kemp/Getty Images
Photo: Mike Kemp/Getty Images

Writing for GPonline today, NHS Practitioner Health medical director and former RCGP chair Professor Dame Clare Gerada warns that the pandemic 'must surely be contributing to the increase in numbers of doctors presenting for help compared to pre-pandemic levels'.

Before the pandemic, around 60 doctors per week were coming forward for support from NHS Practitioner Health, a free, confidential NHS service for doctors and dentists in England with mental illness and addiction problems.

After an initial dip during the first wave of the pandemic, numbers of doctors coming forward each week spiked to 90 per week by June and now 'regularly over 100' per week, Professor Gerada said.

Mental health

She added: 'The rise in numbers is across all specialities, though proportionally GPs now make up a bigger percentage of the overall case load – up from around 50% to nearly 60% of all new presentations.'

The figures make clear that scores of GPs are seeking help each week, and that more than 200 are coming forward each month for support with their mental health.

Junior doctors and international medical graduates now make up 25% of referrals to the service, and younger women have been particularly affected.

Data from NHS Practitioner Health show that up to 69% of all referrals to the service are for women, and nearly a third of all referrals it receives are for female doctors aged 30-39 - for issues 'ranging from anxiety, depression, burnout, PTSD and suicidal thoughts'.

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How to access support for GPs struggling to cope

Referrals for women in this age group doubled between April and September 2020 - twice the overall rate of increase.

Figures from NHS Practitioner Health echo findings from polling by the BMA, which found last month that more than half of GPs were experiencing work-related mental health problems.

BMA polls also show that the proportion of GPs reporting a deterioration in their mental health during the COVID-19 pandemic grew sharply towards the end of summer and into early autumn.

In her article for GPonline, Professor Gerada says: 'It is not hard to think why GPs might be presenting in increasing numbers. In the first instance, GPs are victims of their own success. We rise to challenges thrown at us - as we have done with this pandemic - and we do this quietly, without film crews recording our heroic endeavours.

GPs under pressure

'Add to this that for years, general practitioners have been the victims of unrealistic demands and have to carry a huge weight of expectation laid on us by patients, politicians and policymakers who expect far too much from us.

'That somehow, we can magically make good the problems of chronic underfunding. That we can sprinkle fairy dust and make good the failures of the wider NHS and social care. That we alone can solve the fault lines in the welfare state.'

Many GPs respond, she warns, by pushing themselves even harder in the face of 'impossible challenges' - all the while becoming 'easy prey' in the hunt for a scapegoat for inevitable problems with patient care during the COVID-19 pandemic.

'No wonder that many of our profession feel so exhausted,' she writes.

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