Messages and awareness campaigns regarding mental health and the extreme importance of a healthy work life balance inundate our culture. However ironically, doctors are rarely the focal point of these enterprises. This is the sad and unfortunate truth of our healthcare system. Doctors are afraid and reluctant to seek help for mental health, and those who do, are always nervous about losing their careers. According to a study done at the Mayo clinic, medical licensure questions inquiring physicians about their mental health or a prior diagnosis, discourages physicians’ from seeking the help they need. Doctors in some states are expected to answer questions likes these in order to renew their license and some of them are withholding information, and in some instances, failing to get the help they desperately need.
The report concluded that a staggering 40% of the physicians stated that they would be very hesitant to reach out and seek help, out of dread. Therefore, clearly there are many physicians masking their mental health problems out of fear of jeopardizing their careers, and they need all the support they can get to recover from physical and emotional burnout because of the intensity of their job descriptions.
The concern with asking doctors about their mental health on licensing applications is that the questions tend to be overly broad. Some state licensures ask about current mental conditions, previous mental health conditions and/or impairment from a mental health condition.
For most doctors, the overtaxing requirements of medical school mark the commencement of their mental health problems. A study carried out in 2016 highlighted that almost 30% of medical students were depressed or showed signs and symptoms of depression, but only 15% actually sought help for psychiatric care. These numbers increase during residency as it is a very tough and demanding period in their lives. This distress only worsens with time as the emotional burden keeps piling on.
Suicidal ideation is very high and prevalent amongst physicians, many physicians end up self-prescribing antidepressants and some may even reach out to their coworkers for a prescription as a favor.
Michael Meyers, a psychiatrist and a professor of clinical psychiatry at State University of New York-Downstate Medical Center, acknowledges that physicians under these circumstances often feel like they’re capable of handling their own treatment because they’re so knowledgeable in medicine. But Myers says, “Under no circumstances should doctors be treating themselves or their family members unless it is an emergency.”
There is a common myth and misconception that if a physician suffers from a mental health problem, they are unfit or incapable of taking care of the patients under their care. However the American Psychiatric Association says that there is absolutely no parallel and connection between this theory. This barrier that has been created in the mind of the general population regarding a physician seeking help for mental health and preforming their duties as a healthcare provider needs to explained and removed if we are to receive top notch medical help.
In fact a physician receiving mental health treatment helps both the doctor and the patient. The easier you make it for a symptomatic physician to go for a treatment that works, the better off the physician is and the better off his or her patients are.
Based on how the licensing questions are asked, they may actually be violating federal law. The Federation of State Medical Boards advises against asking physicians about their mental health treatment because doing so might infringe the Americans with Disabilities Act, yet almost two thirds of state medical boards ask physicians questions about their mental health.
As a result contrary to the common belief that there is a stigma attached to physicians and healthcare workers seeking help for mental health because there is a constant looming fear of losing their license, or being judged and questioned over their capabilities, it is in fact the lack of sought help and treatment that puts their careers, jobs and their patients at risk.