When Physicians Seek Help for Their Own Mental Health

I was sitting with my new psychiatrist, driven by desperation after yet another medication failure and the intrusive thoughts that disturbed me. My daily goal for the last few years were to: 1. Do my job, and 2. Keep it together. But it was getting more and more difficult to function. This was a psychiatrist that I had traveled four hours to see – making this appointment a literal “mental health day.” One of the first things she said to me was, “You’re so lucky to be in the medical field, it’s so easy for you to get help!”

Uh, no.

I had to block off a whole day of appointments. When my colleague/supervisor/primary care provider asked me what my appointment was for, I just flatly said, “psych.” I couldn’t lie because – being in the military – we have an electronic medical record system that allows all physicians, physician assistants and nurse practitioners to see each other’s records.

I am a military medical provider, which increases stigma even more when dealing with major depressive disorder. There are some stigmas that I had to get over when I first sought help and that I still deal with. Officer. Female. Medical provider. Combat arms. No one wants to think that their depressed doc will “freak out” as they treat a shotgun wound or a mass casualty in a war zone, (I actually have an unusual ability to stay calm in extremely stressful situations).

I tried doing the casual request to my colleague of, “Hey, can you put me in for a refill?” He would go on to talk about burnout and would recall jokingly that during his residency, “Yeah, sometimes I wondered what would happen if I just drove into a tree…” Everything then became about “burnout.”

“Are you OK? Are you burned out?”

It’s not burnout, I know the difference. I haven’t always been like this. Even when I was going through my medical training, other than the usual anxiety and bruised self-esteem, I never had to deal with this parasitic brain mold and the gradual corrosion of my mind. A brain that has been the source of intelligence, humor and creativity was now my worst enemy as it was seeking to destroy me from the inside out.

It’s not just one colleague. Mental health stigma and misconceptions exist among medical providers. I opened up to a couple of other colleagues why I could not pass a flight physical – my antidepressant waiver was denied. They jokingly talked about their stress coping mechanisms — usually a beer or two at the end of the day or an occasional tirade of profanity to “let it all out.”

A prior psychiatrist suggested that I added counseling to my treatment. This would lead to more records at risk of being seen by colleagues, so I pay out of pocket for online therapy. Online therapy is actually a really good fit for me and my schedule.

Then there are those forms for licensing renewal and credentialing that ask the question, “Have you been under the care of a physician for a mental illness?” Again, my records are open to the physicians of the credentialing staff of the hospital. You could imagine my anxiety when it seemed like my credentialing paperwork was taking longer than usual to process.

Medical providers are still human. We are some of the most resilient people on Earth but we are not invincible. “Physician, heal thyself,” can only go so far. We need understanding and compassion not only from our patients and families, but our colleagues and supervisors as well.

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Thinkstock photo via Pixland

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