The mental health of our nation’s doctors is not so good. Physicians are worried and depressed. The prevalence of psychiatric disorders amongst clinicians and medical students is depressingly high. The pervasiveness of clinician burnout has caught the attention of many in the medical community. But most doctors keep their mental health symptoms secreted away. They understandably worry about professional consequences if they do not. As a doctor living with bipolar disorder, I have shared my diagnosis publicly. I did this as an act of self-healing but also because I wanted to start a dialogue about a topic viewed as taboo.
Doctors fear losing their medical license
In whispered confidential conversations with peers, I have come to see that many suffer in silence. They’re afraid of losing their license to practice medicine if their diagnoses were to become known. This worry is not far fetched. Currently, each state has a board that licenses physicians. Many of these states ask unfairly broad questions such as “have you ever been treated for a mental health condition”? So, any doctor who might have had a panic attack a year ago, for example, might feel that they’d be putting their vocation at risk if they were to divulge this. It’s no wonder that practitioners go into hiding. However well intentioned, the current system is misguided. In this status quo, no one wins. We can all agree that doctors don’t want to feel depressed and patients don’t want depressed doctors. All this is particularly frustrating because treatments are so effective and doctors (and non-doctors) can be their usual highly-functioning selves when they receive care.
Physicians are being sacrificed
It’s important that we have dialogues to disrupt this unhelpful status quo. State medical boards have a duty to oversee patient care by monitoring clinicians. Understood. But, In pursuit of this laudable goal, physicians are sacrificed. It’s possible to provide excellent patient care and have healthy physicians at the same time.
The simple answer: courage and conversation
Why can’t the powers that be sit down with medical community leaders and find common ground? This is not beyond our capacity. Have I placed my medical license at risk by acknowledging that I have bipolar disorder? Perhaps I have.
If my state‘s medical board tracked me down and informed me that my license to practice medicine was at risk, I’d hope that we could have a conversation. I’d ask them to explain how they believe the current system is helpful to doctors and patients, let them know that my peers are avoiding treatment and suggest that we work together to be a positive force so doctors can stay well. And what if despite these efforts, they suspended my license anyway? If so, it would be a chilling message to those who are in hiding to remain out of view. It would be a depressing coda to my story which has been one of success and triumph-a physician with bipolar disorder, well treated, stable and highly functional. Most important, I’ll think of my worried, depressed colleagues who are committing suicide at rates that should concern us all.