Looking after the mental health of doctors and medical professionals

Looking after the mental health of doctors and medical professionals

8th January 2020

By Richard George

A lot of work has been done to raise much-needed awareness about mental health in the past few years. 

Certainly, there’s still a way to go until the stigma shifts once and for all, but the countless initiatives, support networks and celebrity advocates are doing a great job at driving positive public awareness around mental health, helping people understand that it isn’t a sign of weakness or something to be ashamed of. 

However, there’s one industry where mental health is not given the attention it doesn’t just deserve, but needs – and that’s medicine.

My late father was a career GP. The positive impact he had on the lives of patients was mirrored in a personal price he paid in stress and anxiety in anticipation of the next emergency situation. He couldn’t access the support he needed and they were indeed different times.

Burnout and mental health

Doctors and medical professionals spend their working lives caring for other people, but their own self-care and wellbeing are being neglected.

The NHS cites a Medical Protection survey of more than 600 people, which worryingly showed that 85% of professionals had personal experience of mental health issues, suffering from stress, anxiety, low self-esteem and depression. 

It’s no surprise, then, that eight in ten doctors are at a high or very high risk of burnout, with junior doctors most at risk, according to a survey of UK doctors.


This is Going to Hurt

Someone who did speak up about the gruelling nature of the medical profession and the impact on mental health is comedian and former junior doctor, Adam Kay. His Sunday Times bestselling memoir, This is Going to Hurt, is described as being ‘scribbled in secret after endless days, sleepless nights and missed weekends.’ 

The Guardian references a story near the end of the book, where Kay is in charge of an operation that goes tragically wrong due to an unforeseen complication in the patient’s pregnancy. Though he’s close to becoming a consultant, he walks away from his job – now realising he probably had post traumatic stress disorder, but medical authorities showed little empathy. 

In those situations, Kay said doctors should be offered a week off. But instead, he was expected to go straight back to work; he didn’t talk about what happened to anyone, even to his family who are in the same profession.


A “sign of weakness”

Almost of quarter of doctors (24%) in the Medical Protection survey believe that there is a stigma around mental health that may prevent them from getting help. Mental health is still largely seen as a sign of weakness in the sector.

But why is there such a stigma around it? Another Guardian article recounts how doctors learn in early training to “hold the line, to come across as stoic, to turn up ready for work come what may, and never to admit to their vulnerabilities”. This is despite research showing that 10-20% of doctors have experienced depression, and that suicide rates are significantly higher compared with other professions as well as the general public. 

This stigma is there on personal, professional and institutional levels. Doctors are fearful to seek support because they’re worried it will lead to sanctions or cause them to lose their job, or that colleagues will talk about them and consider them as weak or in some way inept. 

On top of this, patients often find it hard to accept that medical professionals can be unwell too. Doctors are, as the Guardian puts it, “idealised as quasi-divine healers, without the same vulnerabilities or disabilities as the rest of us.” But that couldn’t be more wrong. 


So, what’s being done?

Needless to say, it’s crucial that steps are taken to ensure doctors have the confidence to open up about mental health and seek the necessary support, without any fear of repercussion. After all, how can we expect doctors to provide a high-level care if their own self-care lacks? If they feel pushed into repressing the emotions that ultimately make us human?

Promisingly, the NHS’ Long Term Plan makes a renewed commitment to enhancing the mental health and wellbeing of our society, as well as the people within its employment. Specifically, it makes reference to an expanded Practitioner Health Programme which will grant all NHS doctors access to specialist mental health support, ‘providing a safe, confidential [and] non-stigmatising service to turn to when they are struggling and need help.’ 

So says the NHS, the programme means it will have ‘the most comprehensive national mental health support offer to doctors of any health system in the world’.

At the time the expansion of the scheme was announced, its medical director Dr Clare Gerada said: “The last taboo in the NHS is the acknowledgement that doctors also have mental health problems and that they are not immune to the pressures we all face. 

“We have shown that if you offer an accessible, confidential service then doctors will come for treatment, and not just come, they get better.”

Doctors and medical professionals, like their patients, need to feel confident to seek support when they feel their mental health is suffering, and it’s down to the NHS, its staff and wider society to ensure this happens. The sooner we can shift this stigma once and for all, the better.  Let’s hope that things will change quickly and positively for all our healthcare professionals today.


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