According to the Royal College of Psychiatrists, deaths among patients and mental health staff could reach levels as high as in nursing homes.
“Without access to test kits and the right protective gear, I fear that we may not see a nursing home crisis spread in mental health units, with many patients and staff contracting the virus”, said Professor Wendy Burn, president of the university.
Much of normal NHS activity has been suspended, and many appointments with general practitioners and hospitals are made by telephone and video.
Despite this, however, many psychiatrists and other mental health staff still see patients face to face, whether in the community or in the hospital setting, including specialized eating disorders services. They are at increased risk of contracting Covid-19 or passing it on to patients or colleagues, Burn said.
A new survey by the college of 1,685 British psychiatrists last week found Burn said to be “deeply disturbing” gaps in the availability of personal protective equipment (PPE) and tests for mental health staff.
It found, for example, that almost one in four (23%) psychiatrists in the four countries of origin could not access appropriate PPE, with Scotland (29%) being the most affected country.
Only half of the psychiatrists reported being able to get a coronavirus test for themselves and only 30% for their families. This was despite recent assurances from Secretary of Health Matt Hancock that any NHS staff member who wanted a test could have one.
Dr. Adrian James, College Registrar, said, “A patient with or at risk of contracting Covid-19 is the same in all health care settings and should be treated the same.
“Not all of our buildings are designed to withstand infection control and we hear real fear from our frontline psychiatrists who put themselves and their families at risk every time they go to work. “
In addition, 42 researchers from around the world, including Professor David Gunnell of the University of Bristol, have formed the international research collaboration on suicide prevention COVID-19, to monitor the potential impact of the crisis on mental health .
Writing in the Lancet Psychiatry, the researchers say that an increase in suicides is not inevitable, provided preventive measures are taken imminently.
The authors write: “Suicide is likely to become a more pressing concern as the pandemic spreads and has longer-term effects on the general population, the economy and vulnerable groups.
“Suicide prevention must therefore be examined urgently. The answer must capitalize, but extend beyond, on general mental health policies and practices. “
People with psychiatric conditions may experience worsening symptoms and others may develop new mental health problems, especially depression, anxiety and post-traumatic stress, while job loss and worries financiers can contribute to feelings of hopelessness, the group said.
Meanwhile, the Duke of Cambridge supported an initiative to provide mental health support to those battling the coronavirus.
Mind, Samaritans, Shout, Hospice UK and the Royal Foundation have launched Our Frontline, a combination of support and online resources for NHS workers, carers, emergency and key workers.
Front-line staff and key workers can call or text a trained volunteer and access online resources, toolkits and specially developed tips to support their mental health and emotional well-being.
Prince William said: “In the past few weeks millions of frontline workers across the UK have put their physical and mental health at risk to protect us all during the coronavirus pandemic.
“Every day they face traumatic situations at the same time as they face their own concerns about the risks to themselves and their families.”