Sometimes Heroes Need Saving Too: Physician Mental Health
August 03, 2020
Physicians. Our healthcare heroes. They have always been known for saving people’s lives but now they are risking their own lives to save others in light of the pandemic. But really physicians have been putting their own lives at risk for quite some time.
For years, the medical profession has had significantly higher rates of burnout, depression, anxiety, and suicide.
Per the National Center for Biotechnology Information, research shows that male doctors have a suicide rate of 40% higher than the general population and female doctors up to 130% higher.*
Many factors contribute to the increase in mental health challenges, but they are not often talked about. It is common to see significantly higher rates of depression and anxiety among physicians. Anxiety can be perpetuated by the gray area of medicine in which a doctor makes a decision. One can never be 100% certain that their decision will have the best outcome. There is an immense feeling of responsibility and therefore, guilt and anxiety, if there is a bad outcome. Burnout is also common. While it is not a mental health diagnosis, it can influence depression and lead to emotional exhaustion.
The Impact of COVID-19 on Physician Mental Health
It is too early to analyze the data as to how COVID-19 has impacted the mental health of physicians, but one can assume that dealing with a novel illness and determining how to appropriately treat those affected is extremely stressful. Seeing the impact of the illness every day and thinking that you could contract it yourself or infect your family is beyond taxing. Also due to COVID-19, there is an additional layer of dependence from patients on medical professionals because guests aren’t allowed in hospitals. Those on the front lines are assuming the emotional caregiving role that used to be the responsibility of the family or loved ones. Doctors are using their personal cell phones so families can call and say goodbye, or using FaceTime to deliver what could be a terminal diagnosis. Prior to COVID-19, doctors had the ability to shield themselves from a lot of the emotional burden. Now they are the ones, sometimes the only ones, offering comfort and support.
Why Physicians Don't Seek Mental Health Treatment
Many factors prevent physicians from seeking mental health treatment.
Physicians have very busy and difficult schedules, so it is hard for them to take time out of their day to address their own needs. That includes physical needs as well as their mental health.
Prioritizing the Wellness of Others
Physicians are taught to be stoic. They are taught to deal with adversity and persevere. At the core of the profession, they are taught to be altruistic and help others, so self-care is not a priority. It is not something that is emphasized during training.
There is also a stigma and fear within the physician community that someone would be viewed differently if they were forthcoming about their mental health challenges. Some of that fear is founded; applications for employment and the state board renewal process can include questions about mental health issues.
It is time, now more than ever, to address the stigma, and it needs to start within the profession and during training.
Physician Mental Health Resources
Medical students’ and residents’ wellness needs to be addressed and prioritized. For practicing physicians, they need to recognize within their communities that there are higher levels of anxiety, depression, burnout and suicide compared to any other profession. Over the last several years, mental health treatment programs tailored to physicians and other professionals have been popping up in the United States. These programs work around hectic schedules and offer a service that helps protect the individual’s professional credentials.
Benefits of Physician Mental Health Treatment
Addressing mental health challenges has numerous benefits for doctors. Treatment can increase work satisfaction, improve personal lives and even make physicians more cognizant of their patients’ own mental health challenges. Giving physicians the space and opportunity to make mental wellness a priority is vital to sustaining quality doctors and medical professionals.
After all, sometimes heroes need saving too.
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