Admitting vulnerability: never again
Ever since I was a teenager I have struggled with my mental health. I had an inpatient admission at the age of 15 with anorexia, depression and anxiety. By the time I applied for medical school things had improved. Nonetheless, I divulged my history on the occupational health form sent by the university. I felt I should be honest and admit my vulnerability. The next thing I know, my place at medical school is in question and I am being asked to attend for an assessment the next day. Nobody at that meeting asked about my emotional well-being. Instead they weighed me, told me I had put on 17kg and therefore deemed that I was fit to be a medical student.
From that day onwards I knew that being honest about my emotional state was not an option and would jeopardise my career as a doctor. I went on to spend most of medical school expecting to be found out. Someone along the way would realise that I was “crazy” and would kick me out.
“From that day onwards I knew that being honest about my emotional state was not an option and would jeopardise my career as a doctor.”
Speaking out at work
It is now well reported that doctors have higher rates of suicide than the general public. Devastatingly, several of those who resort to suicide have not received any professional help at all. So why is it that doctors struggle speak out?
Clare Gerada is known for her work on supporting the mental health and wellbeing of doctors. She speaks vehemently on physician suicide and advocates for reducing stigma.
There is something about seeking help as a doctor which instils a sense of failure, a fundamental weakness. I have written about this previously. Until culture changes amongst doctors, until senior physicians open up and set an example, we will continue to struggle on in silence. In response to this, the Doctors Support Network has recently launched a campaign encouraging senior practitioners to share their stories and demonstrate there is no shame in admitting that we need help. They also offer support and advice for struggling doctors. Worth a look.
Awareness around mental health and wellbeing in doctors is thankfully improving. The government has recently invested a large amount of money into improving the support offered to doctors returning to training. It is recognised that junior doctors take time out for a multitude of reasons (be it maternity/adoption leave, research, sickness, caring responsibilities etc). Training days on resilience skills and wellbeing, mentoring programs and improving training for supervisors are all examples of how we can work together to improve support.
Having decided to speak out about my mental illness after things spiralled out of control last year, I realised that the greatest stigma came from myself. Only one person at work has responded negatively to my disclosure. Everyone else has been nothing other than compassionate and supportive. So maybe the first step in reducing the stigma is to admit to ourselves that we aren’t a failure, we aren’t weak. We are normal.