Hiding in Plain Sight: The Mental Illness Faced by Healthcare Professionals

Josh Bernard-Cooper sheds insight into the difficulties that healthcare professionals face on a daily basis. He interviewed an NHS consultant, who highlighted the various struggles that they deal with and how this ultimately takes a toll on their mental health significantly. From this compelling account, hopefully we can learn to appreciate the dedication and commitment that healthcare professionals give us, and return the favour to them.

We often take for granted the people working to bring us a service. Whether it be the person who delivers fresh produce to your favourite café at four in the morning, or the minimum wage employee who takes your order there. It isn’t hard for it to go over our heads that the delivery driver can easily take a hit to their sleep schedule; or that the waiter is working shifts in between hours of university classes. And it can be even harder to be aware of the mental health issues some workers can deal with (as it is an area that already suffers from taboo), due to the demands of an intensive job.

Such is the case in healthcare. Earlier this year, Dr. Clare Gerada - a London GP and ex-chairperson of the Council of the Royal College of General Practitioners, and medical director of the NHS Practitioner Health Programme - attempted to raise awareness of the issue. She particularly highlighted the fact that female doctors "have up to four times the risk of suicide in comparison to people in the (general) population.” In an attempt to understand why health workers have such difficulties and what makes it such a difficult subject to address, I contacted an NHS consultant (who did not wish to be named) about the matter.

The first point raised to me was the number of stressors faced by student doctors and nurses who are in training. A high workload and antisocial hours can lead to isolation from friends and family. And as these staff then graduate to a junior level, they are burdened with the increasing responsibilities and demands – which only worsens the problem. The consultant clarified that a vicious cycle could easily be formed, with damaged relationships being harder to rebuild. The relationships are further damaged by an unspoken expectation amongst family and friends that healthcare professionals should be able to handle their own problems.

As expected, the consultant described more vocation-specific factors to poor mental health amongst doctors and nurses. A great toll is placed on those who have to help unwell patients, finding difficulty in both their empathetic response and the risk at which they are to contracting illnesses themselves. This can be amplified further when these individuals are faced with the death of a patient. It was highlighted to me that both these emotional and practical issues do not disappear when a healthcare professional is not at work. Having to be accessible almost 24/7 for patient safety means that not only do the demanding schedules of doctors and nurses continue into their “free” time, but the emotional impacts do as well.

One of the main issues raised by both the consultant I spoke to and Dr. Gerada, were the gruelling complaints process that a doctor has to go through if a patient is dissatisfied with them. They are suspended during an investigation, being removed from their support network of colleagues in the process with the risk of losing a career they have invested everything into. Furthermore, the damage dealt to a doctor’s sense of self during this process is unbridled. As professionals who have dedicated their life to helping others, a complaint against them is an indictment. So much so, that one consultant, Richard Harding, took his life in 2017 after a serious complaint against him. Although he was cleared, the investigation resurfaced previous depression he had been suffering from.

It is easy to see how the challenges faced by healthcare professionals can have a huge impact on their life. A life dominated by their work, both in terms of their schedule and their emotions, is bound to have its negative effects. An increased risk of depression, anxiety and other mental health complications are likely. The expectation on health workers to be able to manage their issues, despite them being some of the most difficult faced by any professional, is an unhealthy reality that contributed to 430 doctors taking their lives in England alone between 2011 and 2015. Although the consultant who helped me raise awareness of these issues was clear about the difficulties faced by them and their colleagues; I was told that above all being a doctor is an unbelievably rewarding profession. Being able to make such a huge impact by improving people’s lives, is priceless. Let us then return the favour and aim to keep in mind that sometimes doctors and nurses need their lives improved too.

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