A Letter To NHS Workers From A Fellow Health Care Professional

We need to break the toxic bravado we have in medicine of insisting we are fine
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Content note: mention of suicide (no specifics)

I’m writing this following a particularly difficult few weeks as a junior doctor on the wards, where I have seen colleagues struggling at work in the current climate of the NHS.

If you’re an NHS worker feeling fraught under the pressure at the moment – you are absolutely not alone. You are not weak. You are not “lacking resilience”. You’re one human being who is often trying to do the job of more than one person. It is completely understandable to struggle. It is not a failing on your behalf.

We need to shift the shame culture that surrounds mental health issues in health care professionals. It perpetuates a cycle of secrecy, embarrassment and worsening mental health. This can potentially lead to an irreversible spiral of events for some.

I know three doctors who have died by suicide in the past year in the UK (and have heard of seven more, which I suspect is just the tip of the iceberg). There are no published statistics of death by suicide in the whole of the profession available in the public domain, but we do know that healthcare professionals are at a higher risk of serious mental health problems and suicide than the general population (see here and here). It’s over-simplistic to suggest that any suicide is caused only by one factor – there are multiple complex, interlinking factors at work – but in the three doctors I knew, their job had a part to play. Furthermore, I know a number of us are exhausted, overworked and burning out at the moment.

“We are doing the best we can. Please don’t suffer alone”

Healthcare professionals: Let’s ask each other how we are. I mean really ask. Regardless of rank, let’s look out for each other – doctors, nurses, HCAs, pharmacists, physios, OTs, SALT, admin staff. We can do better for each other. We need to keep asking and checking in with each other, even the ones who look happy and like they have it all sorted. We are in this together. A kind word, a cup of tea and a timely hug if needed can help to save lives.

We need to break the toxic bravado we have in medicine of insisting we are fine and everything is okay when it’s not. It is not weak to struggle. It is not weak to ask for or need help. If you’re having a tough time please, please speak to someone.

You are worthy of the love, care and support you give other people. We shouldn’t be ashamed of this. We are human, imperfect, fallible and we need to look after ourselves in order to function. You are not alone.

Specific support that I know of for doctors – Doctors Support Network, Support4Doctors, Practitioner Health Programme (mostly London based but does offer some phone appts), BMA Doctors advice and counselling service, Sick Doctors Trust (for doctors with drug or alcohol issues). The Royal Colleges have their own support networks too.

For peer support, I’m super proud of the labour of love that is Tea and Empathy – an open group for NHS workers with the aim of fostering a compassionate atmosphere and supportive environment in the NHS. Please note our main page is public, but we have several closed off-shoot groups – the pinned post explains this, and there are plenty of signposting resources available without the need to join if you don’t feel able.

We are doing the best we can. Please don’t suffer alone. There is no shame in needing support and seeking help.

Useful websites and helplines:

Samaritans offers a listening service which is open 24 hours a day, on 116 123 UK and ROI (this number is FREE to call and will not appear on your phone bill)

Mind, open Monday to Friday, 9am-6pm on 0300 123 3393

Get Connected is a free advice service for people under 25. Call 0808 808 4994 or email: help@getconnected.org.uk

HopeLine runs a confidential advice helpline if you are a young person at risk of suicide or are worried about a young person at risk of suicide. Mon-Fri 10-5pm and 7pm-10pm. Weekends 2pm-5pm on 0800 068 41 41

Maytree is a sanctuary for the suicidal in north London in a non-medical setting. For help or to enquire about a stay, call 020 7263 7070


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