The 2022 Medscape Physician Burnout & Depression Report found that 47% of physicians reported burnout, and 21% reported depression. During the first wave of COVID-19, a study of physician trainees (medical students, fellows, and residents) found that 45% screened positive for depression, while 48% screened positive for anxiety. And this is not getting better. Over 90% of physicians said they are equally or more burned out now than they were during the quarantine months of the pandemic.
Adding to this problem is that clinicians, especially physicians, don’t seek professional help. When asked why they don’t get professional help for mental health problems, almost half of physicians said they can deal with this without help from a professional, while over 40% said they don’t want to risk disclosure to a medical board. Additionally, 1 in 4 physicians are concerned their colleagues would find out, while 22% think the medical profession would shun them if they got professional treatment.
Challenges to Seeking Treatment
In 2018, the Federation of State Medical Boards (FSMB) recommended that licensing applications should be updated and should only ask about current issues that undermine a physician’s ability to work well, stating that questioning physicians about other issues violates the Americans with Disabilities Act. However, recommendations don’t guarantee change. A study in JAMA found that in the summer of 2020, only one state met all five FSMB licensure recommendations.
In addition to licensure concerns, physicians worry about other issues with seeking mental health care. Physicians may need to pay more for malpractice insurance, or may struggle to find any malpractice insurance at all. Physicians are also worried that they may be required to discuss their current mental health status and mental health history with hospital or medical boards to determine their privileges at that clinical site.
Stigma is another major deterrent for physicians that choose to forgo professional mental health treatment. A 2020 ACEP survey found that 45% of U.S. emergency physicians reported they do not feel comfortable seeking mental health treatment, with 73% saying there is stigma in their workplace for getting mental health treatment. Physicians fear they may be seen as inadequate by their colleagues, so they choose to not seek professional help, even if they need it.
Hope for Change
Despite these challenges, there are reasons to be hopeful for change. In March, the Dr. Lorna Breen Health Care Provider Protection Act was signed into law. The law supports burnout prevention training in professional health education programs and increases awareness, research, and education about mental health concerns for healthcare workers. This is a great step to better understand healthcare worker burnout, find long-lasting solutions to prevent burnout, and provide support for clinicians with burnout or mental health concerns.
Another ray of hope is that therapy and mental health are becoming less stigmatized. Gen Z, those born between 1997 and 2012, report higher levels of mental health problems compared to other generations, but they are also more open to therapy and reducing the stigma of mental health. Stars and athletes with big platforms, such as Simone Biles and Naomi Osaka, are pushing mental health to the forefront and showing others that it is not only OK to take care of your mental health, it is necessary.
As the conversation changes, we can only hope that people will take these lessons to heart, and start prioritizing their own well-being so that they can be the best version of themselves. Take the time to check-in with yourself and your loved ones, and take care of yourselves.
Resources for Clinicians: