Why Don’t We Take Better Care of Our Health Professionals?

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Image courtesy of McLNeuro and EdgeForScholars

It is no secret that the mental health of those in the health professions is alarmingly low. Many doctors struggle with mental illness, including depression, addiction, and suicidal ideation. This is no surprise; health professionals see people at their worst: they watch children die, they wait in fear of lawsuits, and they are human and fear making a mistake that could cost a patient his life. All in all, the most mentally stable and well-supported person would find him or herself struggling after a while.

Despite this, it seems that we provide little to no mental health support for these professionals. I don’t mean that there isn’t support made available, by this point most hospitals and medical schools pay lip service to the idea of mental health care and support for employees and students but in theory it may be more harm than good.

The problem is that at the core of everything the schools and the hospitals are most concerned with liability. As such, if there is the slightest hint of mental imbalance in an employee it is often “best for business” to just remove the employee. Obviously, they cannot fire the employee or expel a student for having depression but they can be required to take a leave and may have to jump through more loopholes than a mentally healthy person can handle in order to be reinstated.

I understand this to some extent. No one wants a doctor who is in the throes of addiction or dealing with crippling anxiety that makes it impossible to treat the patient. Not only will it make the visit difficult and unproductive, but it is potentially life-threatening to the patient if the doctor makes a bad decision as a result of his or her own problems.

However, the result of these policies does not succeed in creating a workplace filled with mentally healthy employees; instead, it creates a secretive workplace wherein employees seek to hide their problems for fear of being reported and placed on leave. Instead of individuals who have mental illness seeking treatment and being helped to regain mental health, people are hiding their problems and attempting to self-diagnose and self-treat, a practice that can create even worse problems for those around them as well as worsened mental health.

Medical professionals are at particularly high risk for addiction. They are surrounded by narcotics and have enough medical knowledge to be able to self-medicate “safely”. Even if the person realizes she has a problem she is trapped. Unable to ask for help for fear of losing her license and receiving strict rules for the types of work she is allowed to conduct, she remains trapped in the cycle of addiction until things spiral to a point they become dangerous to patients.

I understand the need to protect patients and reputations. As a potential patient, I know that I would not want a doctor who was not mentally present as a result of addiction or mental illness. But we are doing it all wrong. Right now we are creating a culture of fear. Health professionals refuse to seek help for fear of losing their jobs or licenses and this results in an overall poorer level of mental health. No person, no matter their profession, should fear retribution from his or her employer as a result of seeking care for a mental illness.


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