Physician Mental Health: Are Stigmas Driving Doctors to the Brink?

SERMO_PhysicianMentalHealth_R4~ Dr. Linda Girgis

Physician burnout is a hot topic these days. In fact, in a recent interview with Medpage Today, our current Surgeon General Vivek Murthy, MD addressed this topic and goes so far as to state that “if healthcare providers aren’t well, it is hard for them to heal the people for whom they are caring”.  Yet, many resources reveal that the rate of physician burnout is increasing.   An article in US News last month states that one third of physicians experience burnout at any given point.

According to a poll done on SERMO (the largest global network exclusive to physicians), 59% of doctors who responded feel that work/life imbalance is the biggest contributing factor to burnout.  Doctors work long, grueling hours, are frequently on-call, need to be able to make life/death decisions in seconds, and often sacrifice personal time to do all that.  Another SERMO poll reveals that 79% of doctors did not take a single mental health day in the last year.  Doctors simply cannot leave their work: there are sick patients who depend on them. All these factors grind down the mental health of physicians.

Physician burnout is more than just unpleasant. It is downright dangerous as well.  A SERMO poll reveals that 50% of physicians knew a colleague who had attempted or committed suicide and 67% of those surveyed expect the physician suicide rate to increase further in the next 10 years,

What is burnout anyway?

  • loss of enthusiasm for work
  • feelings of cynicism
  • low sense of personal accomplishment
  • state of mental, physical, and emotional exhaustion
  • feeling of being overwhelmed and unable to meet all the demands placed on you
  • most tasks become mind-numbing
  • You feel unappreciated and like nothing you do makes a difference
  • Emotions become blunted
  • Leads to detachment and depression
  • Produces helplessness and hopelessness
  • Can lead to depression and suicide

There are many doctors suffering under the strains of burnout. However, rather than seeking out support and encouragement, they trudge through the routine their life has become in a detached fashion.

As doctors, it should be expected that we know when to seek help but this simply is not the case.

We fear help because it may “out” us to others, who may then label us as impaired (according to 55% of doctors polled on SERMO). And this stigma bears much truth in it as witnessed by the fact that almost half (47%) of the doctors polled would have some reservation about the competence of a colleague with a history of mental health treatment.

The rates of physician burnout and suicide continue to climb; yet, we place stigmas on our colleagues who may be succumbing to this deadly path. Rather than throw them a life raft, we hang the weight of this stigma around their drowning heads.  We do not allow them to seek treatment even when it is killing them. Rather, we make them feel their very careers also hang in the balance.

Public perception plays a big role in this cast of characters. Doctors are expected to be strong and the ones to lean on when illness prevails. And for the most part we are this fountain of comfort that others need. But, we did not turn in our humanity when we put on our first white coat. Our stethoscopes are merely tools for listening to heart and lung sounds and do not empower us with super-human traits.

Everyone needs to recognize doctors are human too. We are not incompetent if we fall to feeling the strain of the huge stresses placed upon us. It is not a weakness if we become depressed or even, heaven forbid, we need to take medications or even a mental health day…or week…or month. If we are not well, how can our patients be?

But before that, we need to take care of our own. These stigmas are literally killing us.

When a doctor commits suicide, it is because he was unable to ask for help. We need to be that help for each other. We need to cast down our judgmental attitudes and permit others to be human.  These stigmas need to be destroyed and burning out doctors must be permitted to seek help. Not only that, we must devise ways that help.  Only doctors truly understand the stress we endure. Only we can create what is needed for healing.  Unless we allow each other to be human, this problem will continue to flourish.

How many more doctors can we afford to bury?

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Dr. Linda Girgis MD, FAAFPdr linda headshot is a family physician in South River, New Jersey. She has been in private practice since 2001. She holds board certification from the American Board of Family Medicine and is affiliated with St. Peter’s University Hospital and Raritan Bay Hospital. She teaches medical students and residents from Drexel University and other institutions.  Dr. Girgis earned her medical degree from St. George’s University School of Medicine. She completed her internship and residency at Sacred Heart Hospital, through Temple University where she was recognized as intern of the year.  She is a blogger for Physician’s Weekly and MedicalPractice Insider as well as a guest columnist for Medcity News and HIT Outcomes. She has had articles published in several other media outlets. She has authored the books, “Inside Our Broken Healthcare System” and“The War on Doctors”.  She has been interviewed in US News and on NBC Nightly News.


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