Clapping for Carers is Not Enough. Us Doctors Urgently Need a 'Care for Carers' Campaign | Opinion

The British government announced yesterday a mental health hotline for NHS (National Health Service) staff. It's a stark reminder of the rates of stress and depression amongst healthcare professionals, which are high even at the best of times. This is to say nothing of the impending mental health pandemic that is erupting across the healthcare profession and broader society.

I worked as a doctor from 2011 until 2016, when I shifted my career to the humanitarian sector. Four years after hanging up my stethoscope, I find myself joining the fight against coronavirus, returning to the profession I thought I left behind. Despite the worsening of the many factors that drove me away and that cause so much stress for doctors—government cuts, lack of support, and bureaucracy—perhaps things are beginning to change.

It has been touching to witness the love and appreciation for health workers in the UK and around the world. It's as if this pandemic has replaced terrorism as the dominant global threat and Doctors are now given the fervent patriotic reverence normally reserved for soldiers.

The U.K. government made £5 billion available to the NHS, pledging to support it "whatever it costs." Similarly, President Trump has included significant healthcare focus in his $250 billion emergency funding. However, this may all be too little, too late.

Countries like Ghana have gone even further, making frontline health workers' salaries tax-exempt and increasing pay by 50 percent. Contrast this with the UK, where in real terms the average healthcare professional is paid less now than when I first started working as a doctor almost a decade ago.

While politicians of the day make their expected overtures to the healthcare profession, it is the public who have perhaps gone above and beyond. NHS staff have been gifted everything from free coffees to hotel accommodation.

Most symbolic is the now weekly "clap for carers" ritual, from the U.S. and the U.K., to mainland Europe. The past two Thursday evenings, I've ventured out onto my balcony joining the chorus of applause and cheers. But we need more than claps. We need a "care for carers" campaign.

COVID-19 is our generation's World War. Doctors and allied workers from porters to paramedics make up battalions of soldiers, risking their very lives in the service of their fellow countrymen and women. The microscopic enemy is hiding amongst us and we are all in this fight together.

But just like soldiers on the front line, we too are human. In my 5 intense years of medical school training, I doubt I had more than a day of teaching on how to deal with grief, anxiety and the one thing we work so hard to fight, death.

Armed with every medical advancement and tool ever invented, doctors stare death in the face every day; sometimes we win and sometimes we lose. Doctors can struggle to accept this at the best of times, but with COVID-19 deaths still rising every day, I fear this pandemic may push more of us over the edge.

It's unsurprising to hear of increased suicides amongst doctors and nurses as a direct result of the pressures of the outbreak. This mirrors the military, where suicide is more deadly than combat. This is on top of doctors already having the highest suicide rates of any profession.

Many doctors go into the profession to make the world a better place - or at least play our part. Once in the job, our naive idealism is confronted with finite resources, inadequate support and management structures that leave too many doctors, like their fellow healthcare professionals, overworked, under appreciated and like me, questioning why they are still in the career.

After 5 years I threw my towel in. I wanted to make a difference but felt shackled, rather than empowered, by the system.

I found a career where I could express the same values and aspirations but at the same time be valued for my contributions and empowered to lead. As a Senior Executive at the international humanitarian charity, Penny Appeal, I have played my part in helping to transform the lives of millions of people, at home and abroad.

One of the services I've helped to launch is our counseling program, a service that many wait up to two years to receive from the NHS.

We also recently launched a bespoke coronavirus 'Listening Line' championed by our CEO, Harris Iqbal, who has also worked with the public and health sectors in a prior career. The line provides a confidential outlet for those whose wellbeing and mental health have been under particular pressure in the current crisis, including but not limited to healthcare professionals.

I welcome the launch of this new mental health helpline for NHS staff. If this pandemic has taught us anything, it is the critical importance of those who care for our health. But who cares for the carers?

Dr Bilal Hassam, an NHS Returnee Doctor, is Senior Executive and COVID-19 lead at international humanitarian charity, Penny Appeal.

The views expressed in this article are the author's own.​​​​​