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The Cost of Ignoring Our Doctors’ Mental Health

Five years ago, family physician Pamela Wible began compiling a list of doctors who have completed suicide. Since then, she has documented 757 cases. She found that dying by suicide is one of the medical profession’s greatest risks. Doctors have a stressful job that is often exacerbated by inhumane working conditions, and yet, many of them don’t receive the life-saving mental health care they need. (“What I’ve learned from my tally of 757 doctor suicides,” The Washington Post, January 13, 2018).

The high rate of physician suicides can be attributed to several factors. Stress in the field starts early – pressure in medical school and competition to obtain a residency takes a toll on young professionals. Sleep deprivation, which can worsen depression and other mental health conditions, is normal. Patient deaths inevitably compound the already grueling emotional labor of caring for people. And when mistakes lead to mal-practice suites, mental health deteriorates further.

These experiences weigh heavily on doctors, but the health care system’s ‘assembly line’ conditions may have the most detrimental effect on mental health.

“Brilliant compassionate people can’t care for complex people in 15-minute slots,” says Wimble. “Pressure from insurance companies and government mandates crush these talented people who just want to help patients.”

Many overworked doctors feel helpless in the system and cite poor working conditions in their suicide notes.

Considering the hazardous work environment and considerable risk of suicide, why isn’t mental health a priority for the medical community? Why is it so difficult for doctors to get help? One reason is the long hours. During residency, doctors usually work 80 to 100 hours per week; post-residency, 60 to 80 hours per week is typical. It’s simply hard for doctors to find the time to work on their mental health.

Another reason is the pervasive stigma still associated with mental health in the medical community. Many doctors are worried that they will lose their professional reputations or even their licenses if people find out that they are experiencing a mental illness. And for people who have committed their lives to helping others, it can be difficult to ask for help themselves.

Let’s do our part to help doctors. If you have a doctor in your family, start the conversation about mental health at home. Taking a Mental Health First Aid course can provide you with the skills you need to recognize, talk about and normalize common signs and symptoms of mental health issues.

When discussing doctors’ academic and professional trajectory, keep in mind that language matters. Be careful using terms like “burn-out,” which can imply personal failure instead of assigning responsibility to the medical industry to create a healthy work environment. Finally, at your next check-up, remember that kindness and empathy are important – let your doctor know that he or she is appreciated.