Healing our healers: Junior doctors struggling to cope with demands of the industry

A rise of suicides in the Australian medical profession in recent months has sparked query about the industry’s culture to protect the mental health of its young workers.

Four junior doctors have committed suicide in New South Wales in the past six months, contributing to a total of 20 doctors that have done so in the past decade, according to a report conducted by NSW Coroner Michael Barnes.

A report released by Australian mental health organisation BeyondBlue in 2013 found that doctors have higher rates of psychological distress and attempted suicides than other Australian professions, in particular doctors under 30. This report went ignored and Australian Medical Association (NSW) President, Brad Frankum, urges mentally ill doctors to connect with trusted people and speak up.

“We know doctors are very likely to be perfectionists, which is good when it comes to caring for patients but can be very difficult when it comes to caring for yourself.”

Director of the Illawarra Institute for Mental Health at the University of Wollongong and Professor of Psychology at the University, Frank Deane, said junior doctors face multiple sources of stress alongside a reluctance to admit they are suffering in the first place.

“Concerns about others negative perceptions is a major barrier. On top of this for doctors are potential unknown effects on their career such as perceived competence and reputation.

“For high achieving individuals there is a greater belief that they can handle these problems on their own since they have been successful in many other respects. This may lead to longer delays in seeking help.”

In New South Wales, a doctor who tells another doctor they are having mental health issues is required to report it by law to the Medical Council of NSW.

“Where there is significant impairment that may effect treatment of patients there is clearly a need for some system to ensure patient safety,” Professor Deane said. “However there is clearly a barrier to seeking help and in this sense is not a good thing.”

Medical Science (Honours) student from the University of Sydney, Lucy Urizar is aiming to transition into a Doctor of Medicine in 2018.

“Medicine is very competitive and would be hard for someone to admit their mental health problems as it may show they are not cut out for the job, especially while others seem to be coping,” Lucy said.

“The hospital system is very demanding for junior doctors. We are required to complete a two-year internship upon graduating, the hours are irregular and long and you have people’s lives in your hands. It is so easy to see how someone’s mental health would decline.”

With such a stigma still surrounding mental health, AMA President Brad Frankum encourages society to acknowledge the level of distress that exists but insists there is always an alternative to suicide.

Lifeline: 13 11 14

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