Are you okay doctor?

This post contains some strong language. Apologies if you are offended but sometimes, you just need to use something a little stronger.

I hate depression. Depression is a real asshole. It sucks your life force and can destroy you. It is indiscriminate and destructive. The pain depression brings to those who suffer it and those around them is horrendous. I would do anything to reach inside and take that pain away.

I have wanted to write about depression in doctors for a while now. My life and the life of some lovely people I care very much about has been touched by this bitch of an illness. Sometimes with devastating consequences. Beyondblue released a report into the mental health of doctors last year which reported a distressing trend of psychological distress, depression, anxiety and suicidal ideation at levels higher than the whole Australian population. Very few of us were surprised. Take a group of type A personalities and a very high stress work environment and attach some pretty significant stigma regarding mental health and it is a disaster. We all have seen people around as at work who are quite clearly struggling. Some of us are struggling ourselves.

I want to touch a little on my own experience but I hope you will understand that I don’t want to divulge everything. My own experiences make me still quite sad and I hate to say it, but ashamed.

A few years ago, I got very sick. A bad job and social isolation in a new town precipitated a change in me so that I didn’t even recognize who I was anymore. Gone was a healthy, resilient and outgoing me, replaced by a crappy imitation shell who struggled with some pretty basic tasks like getting out bed, sweeping the floor or doing my washing. I gained 10kg and stopped exercising. Unfortunately, my personality, my genes and my situation collided into a big messy train wreck of a woman. And what is crazy, I knew what was wrong with me long before I actually sought help. I am eager to jump to help my patients or a friend but I couldn’t quite make that leap for myself. Which is stupid. But I did and I got better with some help from professionals and friends alike. 

What was messed up was why I let things get a little out of control before asking for help. It was because I thought I was stronger than that. More resilient. That as a care giver, it shouldn’t happen to me. I should be better than that. 

Doctors are often reluctant to seek help. There is a fear and a stigma still attached to mental illness in the medical profession that is a significant barrier to getting treatment. Dismissive remarks about how it is weak and that an individual is simply not coping. A friend of mine said recently about someone who was struggling a little that they were having a ‘bit of a moment’. A moment? That’s an understatement. I cannot for the life of me understand why such stigma exists from people who let’s be honest, should know a little better. I suppose like the rest of the world, health care professionals are subject to societal norms and expectations like anyone else. We are after all human.

I really don’t understand why stigma around mental health exists amongst health professionals. We are trained to look out for it and treat it. We know that it’s a real disease just like coronary artery disease. I would love to see us lead by example. The death of three psychiatry trainees in Victoria should serve as reminder that mental illness is as deadly as any other disease we treat. We as a profession should take this threat seriously and attack it with the same fervor we would attack pneumonia or gall stones. The Royal Australasian College of Surgeons recently partnered with an independent service to provide support to surgeons and trainers and that is a very good step in the right direction.

Doctors need to stamp out stigma attached to mental illness. I really believe that we have a duty to our colleagues to be much more compassionate than we currently are. Depression is not weakness nor is it an inability to the job. It’s a nasty bitch who can strike down anyone. We give our patients the support they need so please let’s do the same for our selves and each other.

For help in a crisis, please call Lifeline on 13 11 14 or visit BeyondBlue at beyondblue.org.au

Update – a few people have asked me if I’m okay which is so touching. I am fully recovered nowadays and have put the black dog in a kennel where he belongs. I am in charge of my life, not anything else. Thanks for reading.

4 thoughts on “Are you okay doctor?

  1. Dear Nikki

    These are important and wise words for all doctors to hear. We even more susceptible to depression than most professions despite our perceived resilience, training and awareness of depression.

    I think many of us adopt the “watchful waiting” management approach to our own mental health, hoping that it will lift and that once the circumstances of our lives change, that somehow we will return to our old selves. The trouble is that this lie leads us deeper into the pits of being depressed.

    The reach of mental illness and in this case depression crosses the boundaries of specialty, gender and age in the medical profession. Creating a culture that cares for one another, regardless of these boundaries is an aim to break down the stigma.

    Thank you for writing this. Maybe this could be the start of specialties coming together to discuss this? #workinprogress.

    Like

  2. Too true I’m from another profession training to go not yet another different one.in my current profession yes it’s a caring profession but in my profession pure not supported if you suffer from a mental illness I won’t say much about it suffice to say I felt marginalised and isolated as the profession is perceived as not having mental illness and if you have it you’re weak, unable to cope and ultimately unemployable, which is frustrating and made me feel worthless for the yrs of study and sacrifice I did to get into the profession I put myself through Uni and worked most days and weekends in addition to studying in order to be able to do uni as my parents couldn’t afford to put me through Uni and my family didn’t want me at uni either. One of my parents doesn’t believe mental illness exists even though they have been diagnosed as suffering from one coincidentally that person absolutely hit the roof when they found out I was doing further study mental illness and any form of study are topics fraught with land mines if they’re brought up! So unfortunately it’s a very poignant,important and truthful,article. Thank you for posting it, it’s a super be article in highlighting awareness and hopefully compassion of this terrible sodding illness.

    Like

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