Confronting mental health stigma is long overdue but necessary to assist physicians in dire need.
Physicians are burnt out – a natural consequence after heroically manning the front lines of the pandemic. What’s less understood is the stigma preventing doctors from seeking treatment for their burnout. As a society, we suffer from a core weakness rooted in ignorance: A large portion of the population, physicians included, still do not see mental health as an integral component of their overall wellness.
This oversight has dangerous consequences for doctors who desperately need treatment. Mental health care is a fundamental human right and indicator of overall health. Treatment and regular mental health services need to be an industry standard to prevent physicians and their patients from dire consequences and unnecessary suffering.
Doctors and nurses notoriously face a poor work-life balance due to industry demands. With the rise of asynchronous and 24/7 on-demand care, there is little to no line between work and home – and potentially adverse professional consequences to setting boundaries. The pandemic inflamed an already festering issue: A shortage of workers and a years-long trauma left many overworked and overstressed. With no solutions in sight, we’re facing a national health crisis.
As of September 2022, 40% of health care workers felt anxiety or dread about going to work, and nearly half (49%) of U.S. health care workers say they are at their breaking point or looking for new work due to the stress and trauma they endure on the job. Physicians are working through trauma, trying to manage some semblance of a personal life, and navigating an increasingly online world, all while trying to provide quality care for patients in their most vulnerable moments.
While many health care workers have left the field over the last two years, those who stayed are struggling more than ever. Male physicians are particularly at risk: 58% of male health care workers in the U.S. reported they are either at their breaking point or are looking for a new job. The data for women isn’t much better, with 45% of those surveyed reporting a similar experience. These results predict a ticking time bomb: This already understaffed industry is headed for collapse.
Mental health stigma adds more fuel to the fire; one in every three men surveyed do not want to admit to having a problem (compared to one in 10 women), and nearly one in three men avoid getting help because they fear potential judgment from colleagues and family (compared to one in 10 women). Men are stereotypically expected to adhere to a toxic masculine doctrine that prioritizes toughness over vulnerability. The “tough-it-out” mentality (coupled with an already impossible workload) discourages men from seeking care. If physicians want to provide quality treatment, they must take care of their health first and foremost, and realize that mental health care is not an accessory or an afterthought. Physicians and patients do not need to hit rock bottom before getting the help they need.
Beyond stigma, 25% of men and 17% of women physicians say the health care system is too hard to navigate. What hope does a patient have if professionals are overwhelmed by their own industry? Whether it’s perception or the reality of nonsensical logistics, physicians must become more comfortable with caring for their own mental needs if they expect to understand and serve their patients. Here are five concrete steps that health care workers can take to improve their health in mind and body:
1. Acknowledge physicians are human too.
It might be easy to forget that health care workers are not superhuman. We like to praise physicians who work themselves into the ground and avoid investing in real support, but the truth is that we’re all mortal. If you have a body and a mind, you need rest, recovery, and care. Though it may feel natural and professional to prioritize patients’ health and well-being above all else, it is impossible to provide quality care when experiencing burnout, trauma, and exhaustion. If health care workers delay addressing their own mental and physical needs, they will soon become patients themselves.
2. Acknowledge mental health care is health care.
We must acknowledge that mental health care is health care. Treating anxiety, depression, or burnout is equally as important as treating a pulled muscle or a broken bone – in fact, poor mental health can adversely impact physical health. Getting support for your mental health isn’t anything to be ashamed of; it’s a necessary part of routine wellness care.
3. Find a health care provider that addresses your unique needs with an iterative approach.
All health care workers should understand and appreciate the value of finding a provider who addresses their unique set of needs.We do this in treatment at APN by providing a specialized health care professional track, custom-tailored to the specific needs of physicians and other health care providers.
If you are experiencing symptoms of depression, anxiety, or PTSD, it is essential to connect with a therapist who can address your concerns through customized treatment, not a one-size-fits-all approach.
Treatments like Eye Movement Desensitization and Reprocessing (EMDR) can be especially helpful in addressing trauma concurrent with regular talk therapy. Ketamine-assisted therapy and Deep TMS can be beneficial alternatives for those unable to find relief from mental health symptoms with medications and other traditional modalities.
4. Share helpful resources.
If we want to learn how to navigate backward systems, we need to demand better resources. Health care workers can access Physicians Health Programs through the Federation of State Physician Health Programs to help them navigate issues and find treatment options. Health care management should prioritize clear communication and create internal programs to ensure their employees receive care.
5. Find a telehealth provider if you cannot schedule in-person care.
It can be challenging to commit to in-person therapy, but luckily, telehealth options can fit even the busiest schedules. Mental health apps can be a lifesaving option, bridging the service gap and providing support when you need it most. If you’re not entirely comfortable with individual therapy, group telehealth sessions can be a great way to establish a feeling of understanding and camaraderie; a therapist will oversee the session and ensure safety for all involved.
The reality of this crisis is that there are no quick fixes – we are in this predicament because systemically, we failed to act. Now, the only way forward is long overdue change, and it starts with aggressively confronting mental health stigma.
The clearest path toward change starts with redefining mental health care, shifting the narrative, and reframing how we act toward those receiving treatment. Physicians should not be forced to identify as their diagnosis or need for support. We must regard mental health as an essential foundation of overall health.
When we view health care through a mind-body lens, we empower physicians and patients to become their own wellness advocates. Only then can physicians be genuinely healthy and capable of providing patients with the quality of care they deserve. The time to act was yesterday. We must lead the way and support health care providers before the entire system collapses around us.
As CEO of All Points North, a whole-person health company offering innovative, tailored treatment across the full continuum of care for behavioral, mental, and physical well-being, Noah Nordheimer is a visionary leader with a passion for helping others find their own True North. After an injury turned into an addiction, Noah experienced firsthand how impactful recovery can be. Now he is dedicated to destigmatizing mental health treatment and committed to putting behavioral health on par with physical health to provide more entry points for care.