Monday, April 19News For London

Depression: when doctors become the patient

Doctors rate higher levels of depression and suicide than other professions – so why do those who work with mental illness on a daily basis find it so hard to recognise the symptoms in themselves?

Reporter: Brendan Westhoff

Sub editors: Ed Lauder, Kait Borsay

Stress levels and the mental health of doctors over the past few decades, has increased, according to recent studies.

Unspoken subject, Credit: Brendan Westhoff
Unspoken subject, Credit: Brendan Westhoff

2013 study in Australia, by mental health programme, Beyond Blue, surveyed more than 14,000 doctors and medical students. It showed doctors reported higher rate of depression and suicide compared to other professions and the general population.

Online medical resource, Medscape, states that doctors are twice as likely to kill themselves than the general population.

Are these statistics really a surprise, given the fast-paced nature, overwhelming pressure and responsibility for patient’s lives that the job entails? When it comes to getting help, doctors are resistant to accepting both illness and support.

In ‘Doctors Go Mad Too,’ published for The Royal College of Psychiatrists, psychiatrist Dr Claire Polkinghorn says:

“I am ashamed to say that, even though I had textbook symptoms of depression – early morning wakening, loss of concentration, appetite, enjoyment, motivation, along with tearfulness, irritability and tiredness – I didn’t want to acknowledge it”.

“One of the most difficult things with doctors and medical students is to seek help at an early stage,” says Dr Mike Peters, head of the British Medical Associations’ (BMA) wellbeing service. “[They] tend to deny that they have problems or that patients’ problems are far more important than their own.”

Doctors for Doctors is a wellbeing service, run by the BMA, available for any doctor or student facing difficulties. Callers are given the option of speaking to a professional counsellor or taking the contact details for a member of the doctor advisory service. This team of doctors works on a voluntary basis, to support people who would prefer to talk to a colleague as opposed to a counsellor.

“Medical students are at a relatively young age, training to do one of the most stressful jobs there is. They’re dealing with both emotional and physical problems that nobody else would actually deal with in terms of society,” says Dr Peters.

The resistance to seeking support comes from a dated perception that doctors are indestructible. They are supposed to treat patients, not become the patient themselves.

At medical school, competitiveness between students leads to constant comparison to others. Academic pressures, fear of failure and the impending professional responsibility the job brings can leave students feeling overwhelmed, resulting in thoughts of self-deprecation and inadequacy. Yet, to admit such a mindset can be seen as a sign of weakness, so often there is hesitancy to seek help.

“The message I give to medical students is, you’re human like anybody else. Like any other patient if things are not going well, you should get help,” says Dr Peters.

Listen to the full interview with Dr Mike Peters: