Physicians and Mental Illness

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New research confirms that physicians frequently suffer from mental illness, and are more reluctant than non-physicians to seek help.


While physicians are less likely than the general population to die from heart disease or cancer, we doctors are significantly more likely to die from suicide than our lay brothers and sisters.  Indeed, a very troubling statistic is that suicide is the second most common cause of death among medical students (accidents are the number one cause of death).

Multiple studies have shown that physicians are at greater risk of developing significant mental health problems when compared to the general population, including depression and bipolar disorder.  Physicians also have higher rates of alcoholism, and other forms of substance abuse, when compared to the general public.  Although the potential reasons behind this higher incidence of mental illness among physicians continue to be debated, most experts agree that doctors with mental health problems are notoriously reluctant to seek help.  They often do not recognize that they are ill, in the first place; and when they do become aware that they are not well, they are less likely than non-physicians to seek professional help.  Moreover, there are still tremendous stigmas associated with mental illness among health care professionals, causing many impaired physicians to avoid reaching out for help.  As if these adverse factors that discourage physicians from seeking help are not already bad enough, most state medical boards require physicians to disclose whether or not they have ever been diagnosed or treated for a mental illness (or substance abuse) as a precondition for initial licensure or renewal of an existing medical license.  (In many cases, disclosing a prior or current history of mental illness, even if the physician is receiving appropriate treatment, can result in very negative professional and financial consequences for physicians who disclose their history of depression or other mental health problems.)



In view of these disturbing statistics regarding physicians and mental illness, I find the results of a newly published clinical research study to be quite revealing (and disturbing).  In this study, 108 physicians were asked to confidentially complete a 56-item questionnaire that assessed their distress levels and their willingness to accept various forms of assistance for their feelings of severe distress.  This study appears in the current issue of the Archives of Surgery.

Within the preceding year, fully 79 percent of the surveyed physicians had experienced either a serious adverse patient event or a traumatic personal event that left them feeling very distressed.

When asked about their willingness to seek support or assistance regarding stressful issues in their lives, 72 percent of the doctors indicated that they would be willing to seek help for legal problems, while 67 percent would do so after being involved in a serious medical error.  Another 67 percent of the physicians were willing to seek help for substance abuse issues, while 62 percent were open to seeking medical help for physical illness.  Tellingly, only half (50 percent) of the physicians indicated that they would seek help for mental illness, and an equally small number also indicated that they would be open to assistance regarding serious interpersonal conflicts at work.

When asked about barriers to seeking help, 89 percent of the doctors indicated that they did not have time to get help with the causes of their distress, while 69 percent also responded that they were either uncertain about how to get help or that they had experienced difficulty in obtaining assistance.  A total of 68 percent of the physicians also cited lack of confidentiality, a potentially negative impact on their career, and the stigma associated with seeking help as barriers.

Regarding the most likely sources of support that they would be willing to seek, 88 percent expressed a preference for their physician colleagues, while only 48 percent were willing to be seen by mental health professionals, and only 29 percent were open to participating in employee assistance programs.



The findings of this study are hardly surprising.   The prevalence of major distress and mental health issues among physicians continues to be very high, relative to the general population.  At the same time, only half of the physicians participating in this study indicated a willingness to seek help for mental health problems.  Similarly, only half of these doctors would be willing to seek help for serious interpersonal difficulties (a common marker for certain psychological and personality disorders) in the workplace.  Among the most often cited reasons for not seeking help were “lack of time” and uncertainty about how to obtain help.  Additionally, the physicians who participated in this confidential study expressed serious concerns regarding confidentiality, the potential for negative career impact, and the perceived stigma associated with asking for help for mental health issues.



From my own experience as a physician over the past 23 years, I can honestly say that these disturbing statistics and findings regarding physician stress, distress, and mental health problems are, if anything, most likely understated.  Within the medical profession, it is no secret that the true incidence of depression, bipolar disorder, personality disorders, interpersonal strife, marital duress, domestic abuse, and divorce is very high among physicians, in comparison to the general population.  Ironically, and unfortunately, however, as bad as the stigma associated with mental illness is in the general public, it is even more severe within the medical profession.

Over the years, I have known numerous physicians with various forms of mental illness and personality disorders, and I cannot recall a single one of them ever voluntarily reaching out to mental health professionals for help.  Sadly, in view of the strong aversion on the part of physicians with mental illness towards seeking help from mental health professionals,  proactive and progressive steps to eliminate the perceived stigma of mental health problems within the medical profession, as well as removing the potentially punitive sanctions that many physicians would otherwise be subjected to if they sought professional help, will be necessary before troubled or impaired physicians can begin to feel free to seek help and support for the problems that torment them.

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Disclaimer:  As always, my advice to readers is to seek the advice of your physician before making any significant changes in medications, diet, or level of physical activity

Dr. Wascher is an oncologic surgeon, professor of surgery, cancer researcher, oncology consultant, and a widely published author

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