Mondays are hard enough, but the one just gone was 'Blue Monday'. According to some it is the most depressing day of the year. It raises a very topical issue - mental health. Just last week Prime Minister Theresa May outlined plans to transform attitudes to mental health, and focussed on supporting young people. It is positive that more help and support in the community is being offered. But while the focus is on the public, who is looking after doctor's mental health?
Medicine is a demanding profession so it's no surprise that doctors' mental wellbeing can suffer. Doctors are facing increasing claims and challenging regulation. Medical Protection members also tell us issues such as gruelling training, heavy workloads and changing patient expectations all contribute to mental health issues.
If a patient presented to a doctor with symptoms such as loss of sleep, not eating properly and feeling low, the doctor would not find it too difficult to appropriately diagnose and assess the mental health of the patient. The doctor would then direct the patient to the appropriate help as quickly as possible. However, when doctors experience the same symptoms, they can fail to seek help either because they do not recognise the symptoms in themselves or feel embarrassed to talk to their own GP.
A Medical Protection survey found that 75% of doctors admitted that they had suffered from stress as part of their job, while 49% had anxiety, and 32% had experienced symptoms of depression. The figures are a cause for concern, but possibly more worrying is that of the doctors who had experience of mental health issues, 40% didn't discuss them with anyone. While some of those doctors may be in denial about their mental health issues affecting their work or hoping they can cope, many find it difficult to be a patient. Doctors are expected to be highly resilient and generally they do cope with extraordinary pressures and emotions. They may fear that by admitting stress or mental health problems they will be perceived as unfit doctors. This is ironic given that they would be the first to encourage patients to seek help as soon as possible and can see the benefits of early intervention.
Interestingly, a study from Cardiff University of almost 2000 doctors showed that trainees and young doctors are less likely than GPs or consultants to disclose personal mental health issues. Of the respondents who had not experienced mental ill health, 73% said that they would disclose at work. However, for those who had experienced mental ill health, 41% did disclose.
So how can doctors receive the help they need, especially as they might hesitate to speak to others about their issues? The first step would be for colleagues to look out for each other. Doctors who work alongside other doctors can play a vital role in assisting those in trouble. Our experience shows doctors often fail to spot symptoms of mental health issues in themselves, and so a colleague can help by raising concerns with them directly.
If doctors need emotional or clinical treatment, they can use dedicated counselling services such as the Doctors for Doctors service from the British Medical Association, or, the NHS Practitioner Health Programme.
It is positive to see that mental health issues are in the news and that plans are being proposed to ensure there is adequate support in the community for those that need it. But let's not overlook those that help provide the care. Doctor's need support just like anyone else.