Asking for Help? What Health Professionals Need to Know

June 18, 2020

Nearly 40% of physicians are reluctant to seek medical care for a mental health condition. There is discrimination in medical licensing, difficulty retaining hospital privileges, and interruptions in professional advancement. A secret remains untreated and stigma continues.

In this video, Dr Susan Noonan comes to you with a unique perspective. As a physician and long term patient living with depression and author of four books and a blog, she is also a certified peer specialist.

Transcript (edited for clarity):

Today I'd like to talk about mental illness, particularly depression in physicians, nurses, and other health care providers. We are all saddened by the recent tragic loss to suicide of emergency department physician, Dr Lorna Green and EMT John Mondello during this current virus pandemic. Both were talented professionals who experienced great personal pain and suffering.

Their story strikes a familiar chord.

It highlights a pervasive problem in the house of medicine, which is that far too many health care professionals fear mental health.

In training, and again later in practice, I found myself in deep despair, with both physical and emotional pain, unable to work or participate in or enjoy life.

I was hesitant to seek professional mental health care for fear stigma and the potential negative impact it would have on my career.

In this, I was not alone. Nearly 40% of physicians are reluctant to seek medical care for a mental health condition.

It makes us wonder why.

Well first, the stigma of mental illness and fear that our colleagues will find out, think or believe we're impaired and unable to cure safely for our patients.

We went through a loss of reputation, or respect in our communities, jeopardizing our self esteem and the nature of the profession. With long hours being on call dealing with death and dying will contribute to provide a burnout and depression.

The culture of medicine, often discourages admission of healthcare of villains of health vulnerabilities and fosters a toughing it out attitude, rather than many of us have found that in getting to mental illness in medicine can be punitive.

For example, during medical training, tere have been instances of harassment and belittlement from professors, higher level training, and even nurses.

There are known instances of discrimination in medical licensing difficulty retaining hospital privileges and interruptions in professional advancement and promotions. So remains a hidden secret untreated.

In addition, COVID-19 has brought on many stressors, uncertainty, anxiety, and fears to our professional lives. It has taken an emotional toll that will likely last.

Unfortunately, untreated (or inadequately treated) depression poses a greater risk, not only to the provider who carries that diagnosis, but also to our patients.

It is imperative that physicians, nurses, and other health care providers feel they can get the needed help, free of shame, guilt, stigma, or negative, professional repercussions.

I eventually received treatment. As a physician seeking help for depression, I needed to embrace the role of patient and allow myself to be cared for. I had to learn to trust and defer to others learn that seeking help is not a sign of weakness.

This is a major step for many of us.

We must improve the way society, and the medical profession regard depression and other mental illnesses.

This includes education, understanding that stigma is based on misinformation and arrogance, our institutions need to openly discuss depression as a treatable biologic illness and offer common resources or that treatment.

We need a cultural shift in the way mental illness, creating environments that encourage openness and wellness. This is all most effective and accepted when it trickles down from the top in our institutions, organizations schools and other social structures, acceptance and change also involves exposure to those who have lived experience with depression and other mental illness and who continue to thrive.

When medical colleagues who have successfully received help for depression suicidality bipolar disorder and other illness share their experiences, more of us in need of psychiatric will feel comfortable, seeking appropriate care for ourselves on this, I will end or now. With best wishes to stay healthy and well.

Related content: Help Our Healers Heal: Reflections on Stigma Amongst Health Care Professionals

Dr Noonan is a physician consultant and Certified Peer Specialist in the Department of Psychiatry at McLean Hospital and the Massachusetts General Hospital. She is the author of four books and a blog on managing depression, most recently Helping Others With Depression: Words to Say, Things to Do (December 2020). Dr Noonan offers peer counseling to fellow patients, including physicians and other professionals, and can be confidentially reached through her website at https://susannoonanmd.com.