A 2013 beyondblue survey showed that 1 in 5 medical students and 1 in 10 junior doctors had experienced suicidal thoughts in the past year1. Unfortunately, this is becoming an all-too-familiar story in Australia, with several junior doctors taking their own lives in the past 12 months. At least 20 doctors in NSW alone, reportedly committed suicide from 2007 to 20162.
These tragedies have put the spotlight on the mental health of doctors. Many investigations have been carried out, confirming the complexity of the issue. But one thing has become clear: there’s a pervasive reluctance among junior doctors to seek help, and we need to address the roots of the issue.
Alarmingly, many doctors refrain from getting treatment, due to fears that mandatory reporting will jeopardise their career. These concerns have led to calls for an overhaul of the mandatory reporting laws – laws that are supposed to protect and promote public health and safety.
Dr Joanna Flynn, chair of the Medical Board of Australia, argues that mandatory reporting has a high threshold explaining that patient expressions of anxiety or feeling “burnt out” would not trigger mandatory reporting. Only serious cases involving someone who is “actively suicidal or actively psychotic” would require mandatory reporting. Dr Flynn does agree however that there needs to be more awareness around this issue.
Competitiveness – the doctor’s burden
Doctors by nature are high achievers. They entered medical school as the most talented and successful students, and are conditioned to continually compete for limited placements for professional advancement. Fear of academic and professional failure, or looking weak amongst their peers and superiors, can be distressing and taxing. Likewise, the constant pressure of meeting high expectations of others can cause significant anxiety, especially for those whose families have invested time and money in a young doctor’s education and yearn for success. Many young doctors feel obliged to accept these burdens as a normal part of professional life.
Stigma of mental health
Some doctors report feeling embarrassed or ashamed about their mental illness. Nearly half of respondents of the beyondblue survey worried that disclosing their mental illness would harm their career. Beyondblue researchers believe that this stigma among doctors is stopping many junior medical students from getting treatment. Unfortunately, untreated mental illness often leads to a crisis situation.
So what is being done?
Efforts have been made to improve mental health among doctors. These include:
- Mental health first aid training for students
- A confidential Doctors’ Health Advisory Service
- “Crazysocks4docs” to encourage medical professionals to seek help if they’re feeling depressed
- A Health Services Program which addresses anxiety, depression and suicide among medical staff
While some progress has been made, clearly more needs to be done.
Frankston Cardiologist Geoff Toogood has talked openly about his experience of severe depression in the hopes that it will encourage others to follow suit and help reduce the stigma associated with experiencing mental illness.
“As health professionals we need to show leadership by seeking help when our mental health is suffering, and supporting our colleagues that have the courage to speak up,” he said. “After all, that’s what we’re asking the general public to do3.”
Whilst there is no simple solution, one thing that everyone can agree on is that poor mental health among doctors has devastating effects on many levels. It impacts the individual and their close ones, as well as colleagues and patients.
Medical students and doctors at all stages of their career need to feel safe and encouraged to seek help and support for their mental illness, before it’s too late.
* This article was outsourced to a freelance writer and provides research based on factual information. The information is general and is not intended to serve as advice. DPM Financial Services Group recommends you obtain advice concerning specific matters before making a decision.