Tips for mental health professionals

Caring for people affected by COVID-19

If you’re a mental health professional helping frontline health care workers who are providing care to people affected by COVID 19, Professor Neil Greenberg, from Kings College London, offers three important things to think about:

  1. How do you prevent staff from developing mental health difficulties?

There are a number of things that make a big difference when trying to prevent mental health difficulties:

  • Ensuring a supportive team environment: making sure you get on really well with your colleagues and your supervisor or your team leader knows what to look out for if you’re developing any difficulties
  • Preparation: well-prepared staff are much more likely to be psychologically robust than those who are not well prepared. This includes ensuring people have the right equipment and the right training
  • Preparing supervisors for having psychologically savvy conversations: In the current crisis, many staff will encounter situations which they’re just not used to dealing with such as:
    • too many patients
    • not enough staff
    • insufficient equipment
    • uncertainties about whether they themselves might get infected
    • their situation at work is something that they wouldn’t be able to cope with

Supervisors may value a conversation with a mental health professional in order to try and understand how to have an effective, open and frank conversation to help identify staff who develop distress symptoms early on and to try to prevent people from developing mental health difficulties.

  1. How do you find out really early on in order that you can provide simple interventions?

Mental health professionals may have a role in helping trusts and hospitals develop a strategy to encourage all members of staff to feel confident and safe to put their hand up and say: I’m finding this really tough, by:

  • Helping senior managers understand what the barriers are to seeking care
  • Adopting a ‘nip it in the bud’ approach
  • Providing simple interventions early on
  • Standing back and support the team and the system to look after their staff properly

It’s really important that mental health professionals are not brought in to carry out psychological debriefing or trauma counselling to staff who are going about their job. The evidence from the National Institute for Health and Care Excellence (NICE) is really clear in that psychological debriefing is not helpful and in fact, can cause additional harm.

  1. How do you provide treatment for people who unfortunately do go on and develop mental health difficulties?

Mental health professionals can help assist the system in looking after staff in an advisory way and also be available to carry out an early triage assessment if people are not able to be held within the team and supported there.

If mental health professionals do carry out an early triage assessment:

  • provide face to face services only if the system can’t look after people themselves
  • make sure to keep in mind the main outcome needs to be return to duty

The confidential staff support line or text service, might also be an option for staff not wanting to talk with colleagues or supervisors.

Professor Neil Greenberg is an academic psychiatrist based at King’s College London UK and is a consultant occupational and forensic psychiatrist. Neil served in the United Kingdom Armed Forces for more than 23 years. He is a past president of the UK Psychological Trauma Society and he chairs the Royal College of Psychiatrists (RCP) Special Interest Group in Occupational Psychiatry. Neil has published more than 250 scientific papers and book chapters related to the psychological health of the UK Armed Forces, organisational management of traumatic stress and occupational mental health.