An entrenched stigma associated with mental illness among doctors is preventing many junior medicos from seeking treatment, according to advocacy group BeyondBlue.
Western Australian GP Dr Sarah Newman had first hand experience dealing with the issue when her anxiety and depression meant she was forced to take extended leave from her job at a hospital.
Now back at work, Dr Newman still carries the weight of that stigma.
“I have a certain amount of shame and embarrassment that I couldn’t cope with being a doctor, this role I’d worked my entire life for.
“When I wasn’t coping I felt like I was the only one, the only one who couldn’t hack it,” she said.
Doctors are in the care-giving profession but Dr Newman said they were often unaware of their own well-being, let alone their colleagues’, and she said there was little in the way of support.
“It’s just such a disconnect, that what makes our patients ill, what makes people ill that we recognise, doesn’t actually seem translate to ourselves,” she said.
A 2013 survey conducted by BeyondBlue revealed one in five medical students and one in 10 early career doctors had suicidal thoughts in the 12 months before taking the survey.
But even more alarmingly for the group’s CEO Georgie Harmen, close to half of the respondents feared their careers would be damaged if they spoke up about their illness.
“Those respondents thought that they wouldn’t get appointed to future jobs if they admitted they had a history of depression or anxiety,” she said.
“You’re less likely to disclose, you’re less likely to seek treatment and support if you think your colleagues and peers are going to think less of you.”
Faced with these attitudes, junior doctors often leave their illness untreated, meaning they often reach a crisis situation, according to Dr Newman.
“The thing with doctors is we have access to substances that the community don’t.
“If people reach the point where they’re profoundly depressed and suicidal, they are more likely to attempt to take their lives, and they have the deadly means by which to undertake that.”
Sparking a conversation
Dr Newman’s experience has led her, along with colleagues from the Australian Medical Association’s WA branch, to organise a symposium on doctor welfare in Perth this week.
Ms Harman hopes the Out of the Blue: Doctors in Training Welfare Symposium will contribute to getting a better conversation started in the medical community.
“Last week was R U OK Day and if that could be translated into medicine, that would be great. Just to say that to a colleague, to have that opportunity to debrief, that would be a great start.”
BeyondBlue has been looking into the issue since 2009, conducting a major literature review and surveys to collect data.
It is currently running a workplace mental health program in Victoria, tailoring the program to suit the unique needs of hospital workers.
Ms Harman said once it was proven it would be rolled out to other states willing to introduce it.