Doctors and Surgeons Struggling with Mental Health

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Image: FANGXIANUO/GETTY IMAGES

By Emma Wu

Doctors, surgeons, and others in the medical profession are some of the most highly valued careers. They are tasked with managing their operations, passing along possibly devastating information to patients, and saving multiple lives per day. They are under high stress, high–stakes conditions almost every day. Doctors are human too. They experience stress, burnout, and depression as others do, sometimes suffering even more. 

However, these mental health problems are highly stigmatized in the medical field. There are professional and social norms in the medical profession that promote unyielding resistance to stress and a fear of showing “weakness”. They are under intense stress, from college to residency to their careers. With the bottling of feelings and no outlet for stress, many doctors and surgeons find themselves struggling to cope with the strain of their jobs. There is a growing percentage of physicians who suffer from depression or suicidal thoughts compared to nonphysicians. In fact, the depression rate among medical residents was found to be 29%, compared to nonphysicians at 8%.  Many of them are afraid to say something or seek medical attention because they are afraid of losing work opportunities, medical licenses, and the careers that they’ve worked for so long to have. In a survey conducted in October 2020, with high stress associated with the COVID-19 Pandemic, 87% of physicians reported feeling high levels of stress, but 45% said they were not comfortable with seeking treatment. This stigma surrounding mental health, especially within the medical field, affects their job performance and prevents them from seeking the help they should have.

Simply talking about the problem, helping each other realize and share the burden of the stress they share, can go a long way in alleviating some of the stress doctors face. A surgeon, Dr. Carrie Cunningham, MD, put her career, professional standing, and future on the line with concluding remarks she gave as the President of the Association for Academic Surgery (AAS). She revealed decades of depression and anxiety, as well as recent substance use, that she went through. She had long been the achiever, the successor, in almost every endeavor she pursued. From a world-class tennis player to a successful surgeon and medical professional, she was never used to failing. However, this meant she only knew how to keep striving forward to reach her goals. She never stopped to take care of herself. 

Her medical residency was one of the toughest experiences she ever had–a rigorous, intensive program that she pushed through. During the program, she experienced the death of one of her close friends, a fellow medical resident, by suicide. After this jarring experience, she realized she needed help. She was prescribed medication, antidepressants, and she said, “It was like a huge weight lifted.” However, following the end of her marriage, she began another spiral into depression. Her friends stepped in and ensured she got the help she needed. She stepped away from medical practice for about 3 months, and with the proper encouragement and help, she was able to step back into her profession with a healthier state of mind. She told her story through her talk, knowing the risks and stigma that would surround it. She states that despite the negative reactions that may come from this talk and the implications it may have for her career, “If I can prevent one of you … from dying by suicide or suffering alone, it will be worth it.” 

Many physicians and doctors believe they must suffer alone because they cannot afford to speak out about their problems. This stigma has cost us so many lives of so many talented people. We cannot afford to stay quiet about this matter. Mental health care is extremely important, especially for those under such intense pressure from everyone to do their jobs correctly. Our doctors and surgeons operate every day knowing that lives are hanging in the balance of their work. Helping them talk, getting rid of the stigma, and ensuring their mental health goes a long way to alleviating their suffering. We have to look out for them, as they have looked out for us.