'I couldn't go to work and I couldn't face another dead body': the NHS staff traumatised by the Coronavirus pandemic

I couldn't go to work and I couldn't face another dead body.

Nuala Hadley has worked as an NHS mortuary technician for 22 years.

She's clearly familiar with dealing with death.

But in the last year, the sheer scale of the crisis, along with not knowing exactly what was going on at the start of the pandemic, or what was to come, became overwhelming.  

"I had a really, really big panic attack in the middle of the night. My husband found me.

And then the next morning, I couldn't physically get out of bed to go to work, just lay in bed sobbing that I couldn't do it anymore.

I couldn't even face the thought of seeing a dead body. So much so that I got a real fear for it..."

Kirstie Hill is an intensive care nurse. She's been a nurse for 10 years, and says nothing prepared her for months working on a covid ward.

Traumatised feels like quite a dramatic word, but it's definitely traumatised me to some extent. Emotionally it's just been so hard to deal with, it's just been so sad, and overwhelming, and relentless.

She says it's the build up, day in day out, without time to process everything, which makes her concerned for her mental health.

In April last year, sickness rates in the NHS were at their highest level in a decade. The most common reasons given were anxiety, stress and depression. And that was before the full impact of the pandemic took hold.

A recent study claims staff are at even greater risk of poor mental health now - with some twice as likely to suffer PTSD than those in the military. 

- Nancy Cole, Health Correspondent

Nuala and Kirstie both believe that they, and many of their NHS colleagues, haven't yet come to terms with the full extent of the trauma they've experienced.

They believe it could take some staff years to realise the impact, and gradually come forward for help.

I'm worried that it's all gonna finally have one big effect on me, that it's all going to get to a boiling point and I'm not going to be able to cope any more, because I've been treading water for 12 months and powering on through.

Kirstie Hill

There are now mental health hubs at hospitals across the country to offer all staff immediate online or one to one psychological support, and quiet areas where they can go to reflect.

Because if we don't look after our staff, we haven't got anybody to look after our patients - that's probably the most simple way of putting it.

Linsey Milnes, Senior Staff Engagement Manager, University Hospitals Leicester NHS Trust

The support will be there to stay, in case staff need it down the line.

The government told us,

"We recognise the pressure this pandemic has put on all health and social care staff and have put £30 million into dedicated mental and occupational health support and launched a 24/7 helpline...

...We are committed to supporting the workforce by further boosting recruitment, investing in staff, and backing the NHS with an extra £29 billion in COVID funding over the next year."

Kirstie is still working on the frontline, and doesn't feel she's ready yet to stop and reflect on what she's experienced.

Nuala says the counselling offered by the mental health hub has helped her, and she's returned to work, but in a different role.