The Importance of Provider Mental Health, Especially Now

Many of us look at doctors as a saving grace. Medical professionals are there to treat our symptoms, conditions, perform surgeries, prescribe medication, institute rehabilitative programs and improve our overall quality of life. These are the people that may have saved someone’s life you love or may save yours one day.

What many of us don’t realize is that so many doctors and medical care providers suffer from anxiety and depression at some point in their careers. Many of which go unreported, unnoticed or untreated because of the stigma that these conditions have within their specialty. In fact, an estimated 300 to 400 doctors commit suicide every year.

In these trying times of COVID-19 and everything that is being asked of our healthcare providers, it is especially important for providers to take care of their mental and emotional health.

Stress and trauma

All of us go to doctors and specialists to see them about our problems, but what is their community doing for them? Data shows that stress and depression are becoming a growing issue in the medical community. The percentage of physicians that commit suicide every year is more than twice that of the general, non-medical population.

Why is that?

The medical community tends to hold its physicians up to the same standards and expectations as elite-level endurance athletes. Expecting them to work multiple shifts in a row that last 12 hours or more, navigating high-stress or desperate emergency scenarios. When they are overworked with no sleep, and human life can be hanging in the balance at any minute, it is no wonder that the rates of depression and suicide aren’t higher in the medical community.

What’s unfortunate is that performing in a high stress, low sleep working conditions become normalized throughout medical school and residency. Students spend late nights and every waking hour studying for practicals and exams – tests that can make or break their entire future in the field of medicine. As they progress, medical residencies and fellowships work student doctors and residents to the bone as they spend back to back weeks working as many hours as possible while barely sleeping for nominal pay.

It’s no wonder that when these student doctors get their first full-time jobs as physicians that they continue barreling forward into their career at breakneck speeds. Both the culture of the workplace and necessity for survival spur them to continue to work on all cylinders, taking few breaks and picking up as many extra shifts as they can to cover the massive amounts of student debt that they accumulated during medical school.

With unsustainable amounts of work and compounded stress in the workplace, stress and anxiety become the norm. It is unsurprising that many of these physicians with depression and anxiety in the workplace either go overlooked or unnoticed as they bury their own issues to continue to work and help others. They continue to operate by the culture of the workplace.

Depression and anxiety

Physicians tend not to seek help for their depression and anxiety because of the stigma that it has in society and especially in the medical profession. The reasoning is that because they know how to identify the signs and symptoms of anxiety and depression, as well as how to treat them, that they should not have to seek help or expertise outside of your own.

Much of this comes back to the fact that high-stress jobs that deal with human mortality often take a more significant toll on the psyche. Whether that be with servicemen and women in the military, police force, or fire department, paramedics, and EMTs, or nurses and physicians – many of the people in these professions don’t think of the lives they have saved as much as the ones they lost.

Furthermore, physicians still have the fear that they may get their licenses revoked if they were to seek professional help for their depression and anxiety. This either leaves them to go out of town to pay cash for counseling or therapy services or continue to push back their own needs for the demands of the workplace.

Impact of COVID-19 on providers’ mental health

If stress and anxiety among medical providers was already a cause for concern, what about now as the world faces the coronavirus pandemic? Whether working on the front line with infected patients or providing support in other areas of our healthcare system, medical workers are facing exponential challenges right now. They are sacrificing their own health and safety to care for patients, and they are fighting an uphill battle with lack of personal protection equipment, respirators and the necessary virus tests and treatments. This can have profound effects on their emotional well-being.

“Mental health cannot be an afterthought in coping with a pandemic,” says Jessica Gold, M.D., a psychiatrist and assistant professor of psychiatry at Washington University in St. Louis. Gold is encouraging teaching hospitals and mental health experts to provide intervention in the form of hotlines, crisis support, mindfulness exercises and teletherapy.

The bottom line: Providers experiencing stress, fear or depression should not suffer in silence. Seek help, either from your employer or from anonymous crisis centers. And facility managers, be proactive in providing mental health support for your healthcare workers, especially in this unprecedented time.

More attention on mental health in the long-term

Even before the COVID-19 outbreak, hospitals, medical organizations and care providers were starting to pay closer attention to the mental health needs of doctors, nurses and other medical clinicians. With high levels of burnout, depression, anxiety and the rising national suicide rate among physicians, many facilities are encouraging medical workers to take more time off by placing limits or recommendations to keep their workweeks to 40 hours. Anonymous helplines have become available exclusively for physicians so they can seek professional help while maintaining anonymity, as not to put their medical licenses at risk.

Though we have a long way to go in terms of the mental healthcare for medical providers, the industry is stepping up to give physicians better care options.

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