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Mental Health Among Mental Health Practitioners

Why don't mental health professionals talk about their mental health disorders?

Key points

  • We frequently forget that healthcare mental health providers struggle with mental health disorders.
  • One of the challenges in talking about our mental health struggles is the perceived judgment and shame from colleagues and patients.
  • Many mental health professionals have concerns and fears that disclosing their mental health disorder can hurt their careers.
  • Many mental healthcare professionals are using social media to talk about their mental health journey.

When we talk about depression, anxiety, bipolar disorder, and other mental health disorders, we are often mistakenly referring to patients and the general population. We frequently forget that healthcare professionals, including doctors, nurses, and mental health providers, struggle with mental health disorders more often than the general population.

Generally speaking, stigma associated with mental health disorders remains pervasive, even though attitudes are shifting for the better. Because of this, many individuals in the general population choose not to seek help out of fear of being shamed, and it is even worse for healthcare professionals.

Healthcare professionals such as psychiatrists and clinical psychologists often fear that if they talk about their mental health disorders or seek treatment, they may be judged or shamed by their colleagues and patients, have their privacy invaded, and potentially face issues with renewing or receiving their medical license. As a result, seeking help for or even talking about mental health disorders among the mental health practitioner community is often taboo, leading to worsening symptoms, potential suicide attempts, and even jeopardizing patient care when these disorders and symptoms are left untreated.

Taking a look at the numbers

Burnout and compassion fatigue are two common underlying reasons why healthcare professionals, including mental health professionals, have high rates of mental health disorders. However, these numbers are highly varied because most healthcare practitioners, including mental health professionals, are not comfortable disclosing their signs and symptoms out of fear they will be shamed or judged or potentially lose their license to practice.

  • A recent Medscape survey found high rates of burnout among medical practitioners, including 42% of psychiatrists and mental health professionals.
  • There is also a high suicide rate amongst mental health professionals, with some studies suggesting that close to 30% have felt suicidal and nearly 4% have made a suicide attempt.
  • One study of more than 1000 randomly sampled counseling psychologists found that 62% of respondents self-identified as depressed. Of those with depressive symptoms, 42% reported experiencing some form of suicidal ideation or behavior.
  • One survey found that 61 percent of psychologists report experiencing clinical depression at least once in their lives.

Why are mental health professionals reluctant to talk about their struggles with mental illness?

One of the challenges in talking about our mental health struggles is the perceived judgment and shame from our colleagues and patients. Healthcare professionals are viewed as superheroes because it is our duty to save lives…however, this is not exactly true. A quote by Dr. Edwards L Trudeau sums up our role as healthcare professionals: our job as a physician is "to cure sometimes, to relieve often, to comfort always."

The "us vs. them" notion many healthcare professionals carry often comes with the burden of not being able to talk about their struggles. Mental health professionals are supposed to be the "healthy" ones, the healers, while the patients are the ones who are ill and need to be healed. Often, there is a lot of shame within the healthcare community that if you are ill and not one of "us," you may not be fit to practice and heal ill patients.

According to a survey from the American Psychological Association (APA), nearly half of mental health professionals who experience a mental health disorder do not seek help. The same survey revealed that almost half of mental health clinicians experiencing suicidal ideations were not open to talking about their thoughts and feelings. Unfortunately, research has shown that mental health professionals often view their mental health problems as a weakness and try to remain resilient by covering up their symptoms and pushing their feelings to the side to cope. Another fear is that self-disclosure is inappropriate and impedes the therapeutic process.

State licensing boards and mental health disorders

Many mental health professionals also report having concerns regarding confidentiality and fears that disclosing their mental health disorder can negatively impact their careers. In addition, they are afraid of being sanctioned by licensing bodies.

For the past couple of decades, state licensing boards would ask a wide range of questions about one's mental health, including past treatments. Answering "yes" to any of these questions could potentially trigger an invasive process that could cost a mental health professional their license to practice.

Thankfully since the 2018 recommendations from the Federation of State Medical Boards, many state boards have changed their language to only inquire about current impairments that can affect the ability of a physician to do their job in the present moment. Therefore, questions about a mental health diagnosis now violate the American Disabilities Act.

Time are changing

Thanks to many public outlets such as social media, talking about mental health within the healthcare community has become more prevalent than before. Because of sharing honest stories, the shame and stigma associated with mental health disorders among mental health practitioners are becoming less.

In an age where individuals are a "brand," many mental healthcare professionals are not only using social media to promote their practice but also to talk about their mental health struggles openly.

If you are a mental health professional who is struggling or know a colleague who is struggling:

  • Talk about what you are going through
  • Share your experience with others
  • Support each other
  • Seek help for your mental health disorder
  • Seek therapy as a form of preventative and a form of self-care
  • Practice a daily self-care routine
  • Take vacations
  • Learn how to say no to things that make you feel uncomfortable, such as working long hours or taking too many call shifts

References

American Psychological Association (2010). Survey findings emphasize the importance of self-care for psychologists.

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