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COVID-19 has shifted the focus from mental illness to mental wellness in family medicine

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The pandemic has been a real test of resilience for mental health services, but healthcare workers need psychological support too.

The coronavirus pandemic will have a lasting impact on our mental health, which is why healthcare systems need to maintain current levels of support even after the immediate threat of the virus reduces. 
 
A panel of mental health professionals stressed the importance of preventing burnout and creating support pathways for healthcare workers, speaking at the Arab Health Family Medicine Conference on Wednesday. 
 
“We’ve had a record number of referrals and have been busier than we’ve ever been. It’s very worrying, but our services have really responded to that. It’s about meeting the demand, and there’s a recognition that this issue will be around for some time and will need sustained attention and investment,” Dr Adrian James, President of the Royal College of Psychiatrists in London said.
 
Both patients and healthcare workers have been forced to find new ways to cope with a massive spike in negative mental health issues due to the pandemic. From immediate effects like fears of contracting the virus to isolation during lockdown, to the impact of long COVID on recovering patients, the pandemic’s consequences on mental health are still being researched and studied. 
 
For healthcare workers, the pandemic has forced a lot of existing mental health pressures to the surface, making them more susceptible to stress, depression and anxiety. Long hours and isolation have also made burnout commonplace among staff. 
 
“A lot of staff have lost colleagues, family members and friends. Certainly in the UK and the UAE, we have a lot of international medical staff, particularly from India. The increase in the incidents of COVID-19 in India has had a huge impact on staff mental health,” Dr Subodh Dave, Dean of the Royal College of Psychiatrists in London said. 
 
Dr Dave spoke from personal experience. “I’m part of that international staff cohort and I haven’t seen my parents in 18 months. For junior colleagues and medical students, it’s even more isolating to be away from family for that long.”
 
Dr Nahida Nayaz Ahmed, Consultant Psychiatrist and Chair of Mental Health at SEHA and Department of Health Abu Dhabi quoted a December 2020 UAE study on the mental health impact of COVID. “Our survey shows young, single, female expatriates working in healthcare are the most affected, particularly in nursing,” Dr Ahmed said. SEHA’s mental health helpline provided a rudimentary level of ‘first aid’ for healthcare workers during the pandemic.
 
The direct impact on staff mental health has led to more healthcare workers prioritising their own wellbeing, a trend that Dr Dave hopes will continue long after. “Broadly, I feel that the direct impact is a rise in healthcare staff seeking help. It’s the new cohort that mostly needs support,” he added. 
 
Speaking to colleagues, some of whom have multiple comorbidities, Dr Dave noted that many healthcare workers are living in constant fear of contracting the virus and bringing it home to vulnerable family members. “For younger people, they are facing isolation, missing out on crucial socialisation experiences. I hope health systems around the world sit up and learn lessons. We need to increase resilience within our systems to provide healthcare for all who need it.”

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