Mental Health in Medical Professionals (Part 1): An Introduction to Burnout, Barriers, and Seeking Support

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Many people go into medicine out of a desire to help others. Medical school is hard.  There’s a very blunt comment online that, “If you’re smart enough to get into medicine, you should probably do something else, because medicine is tough.”  In other words, it’s a ton of work and expectations are high.  There is little room for error in this field, so the pressure is intense. Those who go into medicine are an active part of some of the worst moments in a person’s life. That takes a toll.

While some professionals can easily compartmentalize these situations and move on after witnessing a tragedy, others carry the burden with them. Over time, this can take a heavy toll on their mental health. As a medical professional, having support available in your community and an outlet to discuss thoughts and feelings is an important determinant in your long-term mental well-being. 

The allure of higher pay and esteem of medicine can quickly be forgotten when the training or job itself becomes overly taxing. As a result of intense pressure in the field, there are high levels of stress, burnout, and depression in doctors and medical students.

The statistics for Canadian doctors report:

  • 1 in 4 physicians reported high levels of burnout.
  • 1 in 3 screened positive for depression.
  • 8% of respondents had suicidal ideation in the past 12 months.
  • Rates of burnout, depression, and suicidal ideation were noted to be higher among residents than physicians and higher among women than men.

Contributing Factors to Burnout in Medical Professionals

Although no two medical professionals are the same, there are several common trends seen in this industry that contribute to burnout. Below are 3 of the top contributing factors.

1.   Individual traits of doctors and medical students

Those who choose to go into medicine tend to be exacting individuals, often perfectionistic and high achieving. When personal traits are then factored into the high volume of work or studies, high expectations of others, and the pressures to compete and perform it becomes the perfect breeding ground for anxiety, stress, depression, and eventual burnout. 

2.   Systemic issues

Doctors are expected to manage more and more administrative tasks in the span of their days. Hours are long and despite all their dedicated hard work throughout the day, there is often little outward appreciation for their efforts. If this wasn’t enough, doctors have even received In today’s society, doctors have received increasing threats from their patients looking to take legal action which has contributed to an increased feeling of stress and anxiety.

3.   Culture of the medical field

Within the medical field, there is the constant expectation of altruism and self-sacrifice. Hours are continually stretched later while the volume of patients and tasks to accomplish continues to grow. The values and expectations of medicine are just as high as those held by many who choose to go into this field. As a result, unrealistic personal expectations are constantly being reinforced, again exacerbating anxiety and stress in doctors and medical students. 

Barriers to Accessing Mental Health Support

The stigma of mental health is widely noted in society.  Unfortunately, it is said that “nowhere is the stigma of mental illness greater than within medicine.” MedPage Today reports that more than half of physicians indicated believing that mental health is a taboo topic to discuss, and two-thirds would not consider meeting with a mental health professional at all. Some doctors, nurses, and other professionals worry about losing their licenses if they admit to needing help. Professionals and students feel that they must keep their mental health struggles hidden because the risks to their abilities as soon-to-be physicians may be questioned when being too open and honest.

Doctors and medical students are also often worried about confidentiality. There is the concern of being seen attending appointments that target mental health or of anyone “finding out”. Studies of medical students have indicated that there is an outright fear of embarrassment if peers or superiors were to know that they were struggling with mental health issues and a pervasive belief that disclosure would negatively affect their professional opportunities. This is another strong deterrent to seeking help.

What It All Means

The bottom line is that physicians and other medical professionals can’t effectively care for others if they don’t look after their own well-being first. The mental health of our medical professionals is an imperative focus to promote better quality health care, efficiency in our medical system, and retaining professionals in the field. 

Embracing your mental well-being as a professional may be a courageous step to take, but it is one that will have a lasting impact on yourself and your career. Therapy can help you to manage stress and anxiety, work through periods of depression, and to promote self-care as a means of preventing burnout. Just because you’re in the medical field does not mean that a higher standard applies or that you need to shoulder the burden alone.

I have worked in the medical field for 15 years in acute care settings, experiencing firsthand the toll that the field can take on all of the professionals around me. I have seen the spectrum of coping strategies – and even those who seemed to have none at all and lived in perpetual anxiety and chaos. For those who have not worked in the field, it can be difficult to understand the strain of the job. An example is being able to mentally shift gears and move on following the death of a patient. The black humour that many often revert to can be seen as callous and rude, but to those who live it, it’s sometimes a necessary coping mechanism to deal with the stress, anxiety, and sheer emotional impact. Too much emotional toll leads to depression and burnout.

Therapy can also offer you a safe and non-judgemental space to debrief about incidents and to work through thoughts and feelings that you don’t want to share with others. I get it. I’m here to help you through this. 

For more information on mental health issues affecting medical professionals, follow our blog series where upcoming articles will explore the topics of stress/anxiety, depression, and burnout in more detail. 

Coming Soon: Mental Health in Medical Professionals, Part 2: Stress and Anxiety


Written by Shelly Sinyard, BA, BEd, MSW, RSW

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