Is The Existing Stigma Stopping You From Seeking Timely Help?
Medicine and Healthcare as a profession is highly stressful - long working hours, heavy workload, constant impedance to personal life and several other things that can take a huge toll on the psyche of medical professionals. The pandemic has brought forth with it new stressors such as even longer schedules, shortage of equipment, fear of exposure, making difficult ethical decisions, among others. All of these amount to a greater risk of healthcare workers falling prey and succumbing to mental health issues compared to the general population. It has been reported that an increasing number of healthcare workers- especially those treating COVID-19 patients are now suffering from anxiety, depression and stress.
In modest and tolerable cases, people can perform normally at work without any obvious signs or symptoms of being unable to deal with the circumstances. In such cases, a short break or a refreshing change of surroundings can do the trick to make one feel better. However, if left unattended, these issues have the capability to manifest into a bigger problem.
This profession demands social interaction with patients - hearing them out, solving their doubts, guiding or counselling them, comforting them and giving them the hope that things are going to get better. This requires a great deal of patience, empathy and reasoning from the doctor's side, but if someone is experiencing a severe form of any mental health disorder, the ability to exhibit these traits may be impaired and can lead to a decreased quality of healthcare provided or in the worst case scenario- a wrong diagnosis which can endanger the life of the patient and further add misery to the healthcare worker's mind.
The way to tackle mental health issues is via seeking help rather than letting them be. This is easier said than done, the stumbling block here being the deep rooted stigma related to mental health issues- more so in the case of healthcare workers.
There are two main reasons why Stigma exists:
Reputation and Social perception
At the heart of it, medicine is a profession that depends on reputation. Doctors or institutions need to maintain their “status” so that they can establish trust in their patients. Even though a hospital can advertise itself, individual doctors rely on referrals and patient recommendations. Due to this, doctors have to maintain a good image among their colleagues and their patients.
It is a common place and wrongly assumed notion that a person who treats or guides others cannot face something like depression or anxiety. At the end of the day, doctors are humans too and it is equally likely for them to get affected by the circumstances around them- professionally or otherwise. It is preposterous to cast them as individuals who can withstand and deal with every single thing that comes their way. This is one of the prime reasons why stigma around seeking help for mental health issues exists in the medical community. Doctors might feel that seeking therapy can taint or tarnish their reputation among their colleagues and patients.
Self-perception of Mental health disorders
Many doctors think very highly of their profession and sometimes look at mental disorders as a weakness and do not want to be perceived as someone who cannot do their jobs. This reason can again be due to social norms or lack of awareness in the medical community itself. According to a survey by locumstory.com, more than 50 % of doctors feel that mental health is a taboo topic.
Doctors tend to take little sick leaves and to continue to work when unwell (presenteeism), often thinking they would let down their colleagues and patients if they go off sick. They are self-critical, responsible, self-doubting and often overthink – these qualities in moderation are essential to the profession, but when it becomes extreme, it can lead to a disturbance in the mental health status of the person.
Stigma causes people to be ashamed of their condition and prevents them from seeking help. Someone who is already going through something like depression or anxiety is brought down even more when they see how society treats these issues. Seeking help and support is necessary because it can get very difficult to fight alone. You may not be able to maintain a healthy perspective and might end up beating yourself down. Understand that you are worthy irrespective of your illness, employment status or any other factor, so do not shy away from seeking help because “it isn’t good for my image”. Seeking help is not a sign of weakness, rather it is the strongest step that you can take to overcome a mental health disorder.
There are several things you can do to break this stigma and tackle your mental health issues:
Consciously bring yourself to talk to someone you are comfortable with and will listen to you without being judgmental, this can be a close loved one or a mental health professional. Talk therapy has been proven to be helpful and bring positive results in many mental health cases.
It is important to inform your colleagues what you are going through. People fear and shun the unknown, inform your fellow doctors and make them aware of your condition. This will also help them understand what you are going through and maybe even help you with it. Being honest about your own treatment is important to normalize its perception in society.
Take a leave if necessary. Taking a sick leave from work for mental health issues is as equally justified as a leave taken for any other physical illness. It doesn’t make you any less of a practitioner or depict that you can’t handle your job.
If you are approached by a fellow doctor about mental issues, listen to them actively – sometimes lending an ear can do wonders, don’t judge or make them feel less about themselves – it takes a lot of courage to talk about such personal issues. Don’t belittle them and be kind – it can mean a lot to a person in distress.
Being a doctor, people look up to you. So it is also your job to create awareness and educate your patients regarding mental health. Encourage them to talk to you or approach a therapist if they show signs of suffering from a mental health issue.
For the general public, what you can do to help our mental health professionals is to be kind to them and acknowledge that behind someone who is saving your life is a human who is going through his/her own set of problems. Create conversations among your friends and try to normalise talking about one's mental health.
Quoting Michelle Obama to drive the point home, 'At the root of this dilemma is the way we view mental health. Whether an illness affects your heart, your leg or your brain, it's still an illness, and there should be no distinction.'