Though doctors are constantly encouraging their patients to express any feelings or concerns of depression, anxiety, and other mental health conditions. However, a new study done by the University of Michigan Medical School suggests that physicians are unlikely to report or seek mental health care.
Why is it that physicians, who understand the devastating effects of untreated mental conditions, are afraid to treat their own mental illness? Well, amongst other reasons, it seems that doctors are not immune to the negative stigma attached to mental illness.
How do we help to remove the stigma attached to mental illness? Furthermore, how can the healthcare industry provide better support for physicians with mental illness without stripping them of their licenses?
Female Physician University of Michigan Survey
Katherine Gold and her team at the University of Michigan Medical School conducted a survey of more than 2,100 female physicians. Nearly half of the respondents felt they had met the definition of mental illness at some point during their career, but didn’t seek mental health care.
Of those respondents, two-thirds reported that the fear of stigma kept them from reporting. Gold shared that many of the doctors actually tried to manage their own mental health care by writing their own prescriptions or pay cash for therapy sessions to avoid having an insurance company record.
Only 6 percent of those that were diagnosed with a mental condition reported it to their state licensing board. Others felt that their conditions didn’t affect the care they gave and did not report.
Why Physicians Won’t Seek Mental Health Care
There are a couple of different reasons why physicians would choose not to seek mental health care. The main reason is the shame attached to mental illnesses. Gold has stated that the stigma and fears associated with mental illness are being reflected in many state’s licensing board questionnaires.
Many states require physicians to report any mental diagnosis to the medical license board. Some states require reporting no matter how mild, treatable, or how long ago the diagnosis occurs.
Varying State Licensing Board Questionnaires
When it comes to physical conditions, nearly every state licensing survey will ask if the condition affects the doctor’s ability to practice. However, those forms don’t ask about how a mental health condition impacts a physician’s ability to practice.
If a physician indicates that they had or have a mental health problem that will surely be followed up. They will be scrutinized, and it is likely that they would not be allowed to practice in the future. With this sort of questioning, it’s no wonder that physicians won’t seek mental health care.
Suffering in Silence: Physician Suicide
If a physician is not willing to report or seek treatment for mental health issues, especially depression, the effects can be devastating.
Doctors are already more susceptible to suicide than the general population. This is because they have same rates of depression, but a much high incidence of job stress than society at large. Not only that but physicians have the know-how and access to many items they could use to take their own lives.
Another disturbing trend among suicidal physicians is that women take their lives at the same rate as male doctors. In the general population, fewer women commit suicide than men. The reason why women physicians have such a high death rate may be because of the sexism that still exists in the medical practice (and nearly every other workplace in the nation).
Women are more likely to experience small inequities and microaggressions in the workplace just for simply being women. Why would a woman want to admit to struggling with mental issues when that would only add to the workplace harassment she has to experience?
It seems that physicians are being held to this incredibly impossible double standard. In any other profession, a teacher or a plumber experiencing mental issues would seek mental health care, take some medication, attend some therapy, and go back to work. Doctors are not afforded this luxury.
Protecting Our Physicians
It is obvious that there are some steps that need to be taken to help physicians feel safe if they seek mental health care.
First, we need to reduce the stigmas and fears surrounding mental illnesses. This will come through education. According to the National Institute of Mental Health (NIMH), every year 43 million American adults have a diagnosable mental disorder. This mean one in every 5 adults has struggled with mental illness in the past year.
People with mental illness often feel alone but in reality, a significant number of adults are struggling at any given moment. We need to create a reporting procedure that allows physicians to feel safe if they seek mental health care.
We should reexamine state licensing board questions regarding mental health. State standards should be changed to focus on medical conditions that affect patient health care. This will require studies into specific mental illnesses, the treatments for those illnesses, and the impact it has on a physician’s ability to practice.
Hopefully, some changes in these areas will allow physicians to seek mental health care without fear of stigma or losing their jobs. Do you know anyone that has struggled with mental health as a physician? We’d love to hear you story in the comments below!