Mental health is a key factor in determining one’s overall health condition. Staying mentally healthy is essential for everyone and is a vital criterion for doctors. Very often we tend to think that doctors have it all together and need little to very less support.
However, medical professionals are continually exposed to heavy workloads, traumatic conditions, erratic working hours, and challenging situations. Yet, seeking help for mental health might be the last thing most doctors have on their to-do lists.
It does not take too long for medical professionals to feel burnt out in life. A study conducted at the University of Pennsylvania in 2006 showed a burnout rate of 4.3 to 55.3 per cent in the first post-graduate year of training, commonly known as the “intern” year. Emotional exhaustion, depersonalisation, and a sense of decreased personal accomplishment were some of the common traits associated with students within the first year.
The American College of Emergency Physicians cited a recent article published in The Atlantic, revealing that 300 to 400 physicians die by suicide each year. The study also revealed that suicide rates were 250 to 400 per cent higher among female physicians when compared to females in other professions.
Another study conducted by Medscape on Physician Suicide in 2022 revealed that 11 per cent of female doctors and nine per cent of male doctors have had suicidal thoughts. Besides, 64 per cent of doctors experienced colloquial depression.
Dr. Shaju George, Specialist Psychiatrist at the Dubai Community Health Centre, said that doctors lead a very stressful lifestyle. Therefore, they are unaware or at times even ignorant of mental health issues.
“Suicide rates are the highest among doctor groups- especially surgeons, psychiatrists, and critical care experts. Depression, anxiety disorders, hypertension, diabetes, and heart attack are also common- among physicians. However, seeking help is minimal,” said Dr. George.
He added that awareness-building sessions among doctors could help bridge the gap and reduce the taboo and stigma associated with seeking help for mental health.
Physicians are often looked upon as superheroes who seldom need any help. We look up to doctors to solve our woes, and often think they are strong and capable of anything. And this is just what makes it hard for doctors to realise they need help and take time away for their mental well-being.
It is time to normalise physicians seeking mental help. But, how can this be achieved? Here are some ways healthcare providers could change the game for physicians that need mental help.
Encourage a safe space for expression
As doctors, it is natural to feel stressed or burnout. But, brushing aside the feeling and trying to keep it all together might not help always. Instead, it is best to speak up. Confide in a trusted colleague, friend, or a family member. Dr. George stressed that hospitals and clinics should initiate regular check-ins with their physicians. Wellness programmes can be made a part of hospitals so that doctors have immediate help on hand and do not have to shy away from seeking help.
Physicians tend to take on more work and feel burnt out. As an immediate measure, healthcare employers should weigh the workload given to their professionals and set achievable goals. The conversation here must not be whether a physician can take stress or not, rather it must redefine workloads, and ensure doctors are not overburdened with responsibilities.
“Hospitals should conduct regular surveys and screenings anonymously to understand what doctors go through. This would help them diagnose stress level and also analyse the severity”, Dr. George added.
Patients view physicians as healers or icons of good health. So, while mental health may be a topic that should be openly discussed, this may not be an ideal solution for a physician as it could affect their careers. Hospitals must ensure that utmost privacy is provided to protect those who seek help for mental health reasons.