Physicians, nurses and other healthcare professionals die by suicide at higher rates than the general population. Pressures of the work environment and patient care can contribute to high rates of burnout and depression in the industry. Yet misinformation and stigma over mental health continue to linger in the medical culture, forcing some professionals to suffer in silence.
Historically, healthcare professionals have faced unique barriers to seeking mental health treatment, including a competitive culture and concerns related to privacy and career repercussions. Data shows that physicians are less likely than nonphysicians to seek medical treatment or therapy from mental health professionals, often due to fear of consequences to their careers. Physicians also have a higher rate of depression, burnout and suicide compared with the general public, and the problem is not limited to physicians—nurses also have an increased suicide rate.
Lack of action to address the mental health needs of medical professionals has, in some cases, been exacerbated by medical settings. Specifically, physicians sometimes associate significant feelings of distress with their professional identities, preferring to hide feelings of worry, anxiety and shame to avoid drawing attention to self-perceived weakness. These feelings, combined with more access to lethal means, have the potential to increase the suicide rate among medical professionals.
Fortunately, the medical community has taken notice, and there are several national initiatives underway addressing medical professionals' mental health. For example, employee assistance programs offer confidential screening programs and services to help resolve employees' personal or work-related problems that may impact job performance and mental and emotional health.
The American Foundation for Suicide Prevention program Talk Saves Lives: An Introduction to Suicide Prevention, helps employers, colleagues, families and other support systems learn more about the scope of the problem, risks and warning signs.
However, these initiatives can only drive change if the medical community addresses the cultural factors that have the potential to discourage professionals from seeking help. Health institutions can take action through policy changes that protect the professional reputation and privacy of those seeking help; screening programs that incorporate anonymity; safe and accessible avenues for individuals to address mental health concerns; and confidential and timely follow-up with a mental health professional without fear of punitive consequences.
Boards granting hospital privileges and state medical boards can also play a role by adjusting their approach to evaluating physician mental health. Because many physicians fear discrimination based on mental health challenges, state boards must focus determinations on competence and impairment rather than illness and treatment.
Further, a history of mental health challenges should not be relevant to licensing if it does not affect a physician's current ability to practice. If medical professionals understand that their careers will not be jeopardized by seeking treatment, they will be more likely to seek help.
The medical community must also actively promote an environment that is conducive to seeking help and point professionals to available resources. Using employee assistance program services, engaging support systems, and training employees to recognize the warning signs of suicide are essential strategies to address mental health issues and reduce suicide risk.
Ultimately, healthcare institutions have a responsibility to address workplace culture and make policy changes that properly support medical professionals.