At some point in our lives, all of us need emotional support, whether from family, friends, colleagues, or mental health providers. However, those in certain vocations may be more reluctant to acknowledge and act on mental health challenges, often due to concerns over confidentiality, licensure, job security, or public image. Physicians fall into this category.
A number of surveys bear this out. In one, over half of physicians with self-reported depression expressed reluctance to seek mental health care due to concerns over confidentiality and social/professional stigma. Many also showed reticence because of potential impacts on licensure or hospital privileges. These percentages are significantly higher than the general population. Also, physician reluctance was greater in states where mental health inquiries were included in medical licensure application questions.
What about non-professional support, such as from family, friends, and colleagues? Barriers in this domain are influenced by several factors, including our pervasive cultural bias equating mental health issues with character flaws, the absence of mental toughness, or incompetence. In reality, the vast majority of people suffering from stress, depression, anxiety, or other mental maladies are simply having a normal response to taxing circumstances. However, for a physician, disclosing psychological challenges may threaten both that individual’s public image and their identity, particularly when the latter places a high value on self-reliance.
Logistics can pose another barrier. Busy schedules coupled with family commitments may create complexities that discourage seeking professional care. The emergence of online therapy, either by phone or video chat, has lowered this barrier to some degree. In fact, both the greater anonymity and convenience of telehealth may increase the odds that physicians will seek treatment for mental health concerns. Studies show that, in most cases, online psychotherapy is equally effective as the in-person variety.
There are steps physicians, medical committees, and healthcare organizations can take to lower some of these barriers, including:
- Communication: Regular messaging through an organization’s normal information platforms that acknowledges the ubiquitous nature of life challenges (normalizing) while also educating physicians about available resources.
- Education: Brief, informative sessions at physician meetings and gatherings focusing on mental wellness.
- Leadership: Encouraging physician leaders to speak openly about the stresses of caregiving and their mental health impacts, doing so within a positive frame that encourages engagement with appropriate resources.
- Resources: Making available free and confidential resources, such as employee assistance programs (EAP) and physician wellness programs.
Studies show that normalizing mental health challenges is the most effective strategy for lowering barriers to seeking support or treatment. Openly acknowledging that everyone experiences stress and that reaching out for support is the right thing to do helps physicians overcome any reluctance they may feel. In terms of life’s tougher times, everyone needs someone to tell it to, and doctors are no exception.