Almost half of all physicians feel burned out, and 4% are clinically depressed according to the 2019 Medscape National Physician Burnout, Depression, and Suicide Report. Alarmingly, 14% of physicians have considered suicide and 1% have attempted it, making the suicide rate within the medical field higher than in any other profession and more than twice as high as the rate for the general population.
The numbers are staggering, but the reality of mental health problems for physicians is unsurprising. Long hours, high-pressure situations, and emotionally draining days can wreak mental and physical havoc, and physicians deal with them all.
“It is a more stressful job than it ever used to be,” says Dr. Brad Hassell, a psychiatrist and locum tenens physician. “The accessibility that people have to their physicians, the caseload, the number of patients that we’re expected to see, the stresses of litigation concerns — all of these things add up. They cause a great deal of anxiety and depression, and unfortunately increased rates of suicides among physicians.”
Symptoms of mental health issues
When issues like ongoing depression and burnout are not treated, they can seriously impact your life and relationships. According to the Medscape study:
- 47% of physicians dealing with depression reported being easily exasperated with other staff members
- 35% were more exasperated with patients
- 26% reported being less careful while taking patient notes as a result
Mental health issues like burnout and depression can cause lack of sleep and energy, along with physical symptoms like headaches, stomachaches, and fatigue. They are also associated with an increased risk of early death.
Why, then, are physicians not getting help?
Sixty-four percent of physicians have not sought professional help and don’t plan on seeking professional help for burnout and depression. Dr. Hassell credits that to the remaining stigma surrounding physician mental health.
“Quite often I think things are frowned upon negatively by the medical profession. If we could lose the stigma anywhere, it would be in medicine, right? No. Unfortunately not,” Dr. Hassell says. “It’s still stigmatized — even among some psychiatrists they stigmatize it a little bit.”
The risks of self-treatment
Statistics not only suggest that physicians are not getting the help they need, they show that 47% of physicians dealing with mental health issues don’t ask for help because they feel they can deal with it on their own.
“They’ll prescribe a medication for themselves, take something from the sample drawer, try to figure out what it is for themselves before they go to seek help from a psychiatrist or a psychologist or whatever,” Dr. Hassell says.
Without professional help, mental health issues will continue and may escalate until they become fatal.
Ways to treat physician mental health issues
What should you as a physician do to treat mental health problems? Dr. Hassell offers three solutions.
1. Change your work conditions
“An ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure,” says Dr. Hassell. One example is learning what is a good fit for your health and what isn’t.
“If you’re in a job you don’t like, if you’re in a position that is definitely not good for you, repeating the same things over and over again and expecting things to change — that’s insanity,” Dr. Hassell says. “Odds are it’s going to adversely affect you. If you’re in a bad situation, you need to get out.”
One option is to work locum tenens, which allows you to change your work to conditions that may be better for your mental health and to have more control over your environment.
2. Seek help from a professional
You wouldn’t perform surgery on yourself to address an internal physical issue. Likewise, you shouldn’t treat yourself for mental illness, particularly things like depression and anxiety. Seek help from licensed professionals who can provide you with the proper diagnoses, methods of attack, and medication. Without proper treatment from trained therapists and psychiatrists, you may be underestimating the severity of your mental health issues and putting your life at risk.
3. Prioritize your life over your career
Many physicians are afraid of admitting mental health issues because they think doing so will put their careers at risk.
“None of that’s going to matter if you’re dead,” Dr. Hassell says. “It’s hard to see that when you have the tunnel vision of depression.”
The most important thing, says Dr. Hassell, is to prioritize your life.
“Talk it over with your psychiatrist when you see them and say, ‘Hey, what is your duty to report on this? What is your obligation to turn in something to the state?’ It’s those types of things that you need to have the conversation with right away, but be very, very honest with your psychiatrist or your psychologist or whoever you’re seeing. You need to let them know exactly what you’re feeling.”
His advice in short? “Do not deny; be honest.”
If you or a loved one are experiencing suicidal thoughts or contemplating suicide, please call the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 800.273.8255 or seek help from a licensed professional as soon as possible.