DR MAX PEMBERTON: It's the forgotten victims I fear for most

Fear for the future? A general feeling of helplessness? Frustration at our loss of freedom? A sense of disorientation at just how fast life has changed as millions of us adapt to working from home, to queuing to get into the supermarket, and seeing family and friends only on video? 

No doubt all of the above will sound familiar as we all struggle to cope with life in lockdown. But this week, I want to dedicate my column to the forgotten victims of this pandemic, many of whom are the patients my colleagues and I would see routinely before coronavirus led to our deployment elsewhere. 

So let us spare a thought for people suffering from chronic depression or who struggle with suicidal thoughts. For them, isolation is not what the doctor ordered. Mental health patients are some of the tragic collateral damage unwittingly created by the desperate re-organisation of the NHS in response to Covid-19. 

Don’t get me wrong. The health system is performing incredibly under huge pressure. It is something that is making everyone proud — just look at the millions of people who turned out again on Thursday night to clap and show their appreciation.

Photo  shows tests being carried out at a coronavirus testing site in a car park at Chessington World of Adventures, in Greater London, as the UK continues in lockdown Friday April 3, 2020

Photo  shows tests being carried out at a coronavirus testing site in a car park at Chessington World of Adventures, in Greater London, as the UK continues in lockdown Friday April 3, 2020

We all knew that there would be changes to the services we offer, but the scale and speed of these changes has been simply breathtaking to witness. The unintended consequence is that many mental health patients have, in effect, been abandoned. 

The services on which they rely up and down the country are being suspended as resources are diverted. Most are now only operating with little or no outpatient provision, a greatly reduced inpatient ward and a crisis team for those who are actively suicidal. 

A few clinics are offering support via video-conferencing for the most seriously affected, but that is patchy and demand is great. As regular readers know, I work in a specialist eating disorder service. We have patients who have been waiting months for an appointment and who have now been put on hold indefinitely. 

Of course, it’s not just mental health services. Many other services across the NHS have also been closed. Friends who work in paediatrics and cardiology have had to abandon their clinics and patients to help out on the corona frontline. 

Cancer patients have had operations, chemotherapy and radiotherapy cancelled. Stroke and heart attack victims may not get the emergency treatment they need. I shudder at what the fall-out will mean for all these patients — but as a psychiatrist, what I am seeing makes me profoundly worried for the mentally ill and for those who may become so. 

We are living through unprecedented times and this will take a huge toll on everyone’s wellbeing. When we emerge from it, I fear the mental health care system will be woefully unprepared to cope. 

But what about the challenges now? A study by King’s College London has found that putting suspected coronavirus patients in quarantine could cause long-lasting, psychological damage. Spending weeks in isolation can trigger PTSD, depression, feelings of confusion, anger and fear, and even drug abuse. 

A friend, who is a secretary at a hospital trust in London, tells me receptionists have been warned that they will have to deal as best they can with acutely psychotic patients who phone in. 

Police officers patrol the high street on April 02, 2020 in Exeter, England

Police officers patrol the high street on April 02, 2020 in Exeter, England

Some of these will be experiencing paranoia and hearing voices, because they are no longer being monitored in the community and have stopped taking their medication. Yesterday, the tragic death toll due to coronavirus had reached 3,605 in the UK. 

The chilling truth is that the number of deaths will potentially be far higher if we include mental health patients who can’t get the help they need. Often the most vulnerable and isolated at the best of times, they are facing months without any form of support. 

It breaks my heart to think of what is going on right now behind many closed doors around the country. Some mental health sufferers are totally alone, while others are reliant on their families, who are buckling under the strain. 

Yes, we must fight the scourge of coronavirus with all the resources we can muster — but in doing so, we cannot ignore the thousands of other patients who are being sacrificed.

People queue inside a Sainsbury's supermarket in Watford as the spread of the coronavirus disease continues, Watford, Britain, March 19, 2020

People queue inside a Sainsbury’s supermarket in Watford as the spread of the coronavirus disease continues, Watford, Britain, March 19, 2020


 Royal tribute’s food for thought

Prince Charles this week spoke about his own experience of infection with Covid-19. He acknowledged that he was lucky and had suffered relatively mild symptoms. 

I was delighted to hear him pay tribute not only to NHS staff, but also to food retail workers. Hear, hear! 

I’ve been overwhelmed by the love shown for the health service these past two weeks, but let’s not forget all the other people without whom things would quickly fall apart. 

Food producers, delivery staff and, of course, those who work in food retail, from corner shops to supermarkets, stacking shelves and manning tills. 

Together they are ensuring that we get food on our tables. 

The lovely ladies at my local M&S have cheered me up these past few weeks. 

They are among the many unsung heroes of this crisis. 


I was one of the group of doctors and scientists who signed a letter this week sent by charity Sense About Science which promotes the public understanding of science. 

We are asking the Government to improve its communication with the general public. 

I don’t believe the Prime Minister’s office is being as open and transparent about the research on which it has based its decisions on tackling coronavirus as it should. 

I appreciate that it must be tough for No. 10 to explain something that is so complex. 

But it can’t limit communication to what we must and must not do.

 The Government’s defensive approach seems suspicious. 

Credit the public with more intelligence and tell us the truth.


 In 1918, the world was recovering from a war that had killed 20 million people. 

And then the Spanish Flu swept the globe, claiming up to 50 million lives. Back then, there was neither hope of a cure nor a vaccine. 

There were no ventilators, antibiotics or intensive care facilities. We were decades away from cracking the genetic code understanding DNA. 

As strange as it sounds in these grim times, this is the best time in human history for there to be a pandemic because of the great advances we have made in science, technology and clinical medicine. 

Of course, it’s still scary and we must take all necessary precautions against it. 

However, I am hopeful that we will get on top of this pandemic in a way we’ve never been able to in the past.


The perfect telly fix for our times

Having developed a dry cough this week, I was sent home from hospital and am now self-isolating. I know I should be making the most of it — reading improving books, catching up with arthouse films, discovering new music etc. 

But sometimes what’s on TV is just too good not to miss. I’ve discovered the joys of what is keeping millions of others glued to the sofa — The Repair Shop on BBC One, which sees crafts­people restore cherished possessions to their former glory. 

Even my coolest friends, who would usually sneer at something so gentle and pedestrian are hooked. 

The genius of The Repair Shop is the backstories of the people who bring in items to be fixed.

In one tearjerker of an episode, a widower was overcome with emotion when the jukebox he and his late wife used on their wedding day was fixed — and he could listen again to the song the couple had their first dance to. 

The show taps into that need we all have to feel connected to the past, to have a sense of belonging. 

At times such as these, we look for diversions that are not only comforting, but also remind us of what really matters: other people. 

And, above all, it reminds us that what is broken can be fixed. 

That’s the dose of pure happiness we all need right now.


Dr Max prescribes… Bloom & Wild flowers by post 

What could be more cheering and uplifting than a bunch of flowers? 

I particularly love Bloom & Wild, because its bouquets are packed into a box which can fit through your letterbox — ideal during social distancing! 

They are perfect to send to people who are isolating or those in high-risk groups unable to leave the house. 

It also lets loved ones know you’re thinking of them while you can’t see each other in person. (Other florists are available online!)  

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Written by Angle News

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