Patients regularly rely on physicians to guide their healing when they are not well. However, what’s often overlooked is the wellness of physicians themselves—especially when it comes to their mental health, which can be particularly affected by the amount of responsibility and stress they encounter in their day-to-day lives.
Psychotherapy, generally defined as the process of treating mental health problems by talking with a psychiatrist, psychologist, or other mental health provider, is one potentially powerful treatment measure to ensure the mental health and well-being of physicians. To encourage physicians to participate in psychotherapy, organizations can provide onsite access as part of strategic wellness programming to reduce distress and burnout. By offering the physicians they employ access to this kind of service, healthcare institutions can help improve both physician wellness and the outcomes for the patients they treat.
Here are just a few of the reasons why institutions may want to consider providing physicians with regular, easy access to psychotherapy.
Preventing Suicidal Ideation
Research regularly shows that the physician suicide rate is incredibly high compared with that of the rest of the population. In fact, recent studies indicate that an estimated 300 to 400 doctors die by suicide each year—more than double the rate of the general population.
Many different modalities of psychotherapy have been proven to effectively decrease suicidal ideation in those who suffer from it. Thus, offering easy access to psychotherapy for physicians could help alleviate distressing suicidal thoughts and reduce the risk that doctors attempt suicide.
Reducing the Effects of Distress
Physicians work long hours, and they may go long spells without being able to get good sleep—particularly those who are in training. Unfortunately, the quality and amount of sleep a person gets can be directly tied to their mental health. In addition, long hours can cause physicians to struggle creating a successful work-life integration which may lead to added stress at home. Many more factors, such as increased bureaucratic tasks and the high-pressure environments that physicians work in every day can lead to burnout, severe fatigue, and other dimensions of distress that reduce well-being.
Medical institutions that can provide their physicians regular access to mental healthcare treatment can help those who feel that their mental health is suffering due to stressful work conditions.
Eliminating the Stigma of Asking for Help
While they spend their days diagnosing and treating health concerns in patients, physicians are notoriously reluctant to seek medical help themselves, especially when it comes to their own mental health. Physicians tend to avoid reporting burnout and other dimensions of distress or even discussing well-being within the workplace due to the perceived stigma of failure, potential career repercussions, and other negative consequences.
A survey of surgeons in the U.S. showed that while 1 in 16 had experienced some form of suicidal ideation in the past year, only 26% sought out psychological help for those thoughts. In fact, a survey done by Mayo Clinic revealed that nearly 40% of physicians were reluctant to seek care for a mental health condition because they worried about potential repercussions to their medical licensure.
Institutions offering and encouraging the use of psychotherapy would help remove the stigma from mental health treatment and reassure providers that they would not be risking their career by seeking the proper care. Showing that psychotherapy comes with employer endorsement may make providers more likely to seek out a therapist when they have distressing feelings or thoughts, and in turn help reduce the risk of suicidal ideation, burnout, and other dimensions of distress.
Healthier Physicians Means Healthier Patients
Healthy physicians, both physically and mentally, are better able to treat their patients. Not only will institutions have a stronger and more thriving workforce, but they'll also be able to build a reputation as a more reliable, effective organization.
At the end of the day, doctors can only help their patients get well if they are well themselves. One way doctors can help improve their mental health is by participating in psychotherapy—whether that therapy is merely for mental health maintenance, or whether it can help them overcome depression, anxiety, suicidal ideation, or other mental health struggles. If institutions provide psychotherapy services to their physicians, doctors are more likely to access those services, and less likely to fear the repercussions of seeking help.