The culture of health care, historically, has perpetuated a tough it out attitude – contributing to the stigma of mental illness among clinicians. One study found that 40% of physicians are reluctant to seek medical care for a mental health condition. On a similar note, nurses suffer from similar fears of losing their license to practice or losing employment if they seek mental health care. In a survey of 2,500 nurses, 95% said that their mental health was either not a priority for the health care industry or that it was a priority but there were inadequate measures in place to support it.
As a psychiatrist and chief clinical wellness officer, I recognize and run into this mentality every day.
The truth is, while honorable and respectable in intention, trying to “tough it out” is unsustainable. We are all human; we need to treat ourselves with the same respect and care that we give our patients. We don’t expect them to “tough it out” when facing a mental health diagnosis, why should we expect it of ourselves?
You don’t have to be alone in your struggle. Here are a few ways to recognize when you need help and how to ask for it.
- Develop self-awareness of your feelings and state of being. It’s easy to put your head down and push through a difficult day. However, doing so repeatedly without recognizing the impact it has on you can have devastating, career-ending effects. Burnout is the principally cited reason for profession departures for physicians, nurses, and APP’s alike. It’s important to be self-aware of how we are doing to see the warning signs that you might need help. This can come in the form of sadness, depression, high irritability, lack of sleep, and much more. We are often the last to know when it comes to our own emerging struggles, so take time to connect with yourself and truly understand your state of being.
- Don’t wait; even if it’s a daunting step–take action. Recognizing the need for help and asking for it is a sign of strength. This action can be pivotal in sparking change for individual clinicians as well as the culture across our profession. Despite warnings from the American Psychiatric Association against this and the Department of Justice establishing that such questions violate the American Disabilities Act, many states, hospitals, and medical and nursing licensing bodies ask applicants about past diagnoses and mental treatments. However, the key word here is many – not all. Steps have already been made to destigmatize and rather prioritize mental healthcare for clinicians. Together we can help further break this culture of silence by having the courage to ask for help and encourage our colleagues to do the same.
- Seek help. You may feel vulnerable in doing so, but, as Brene Brown says, “Vulnerability is not weakness; it’s our greatest measure of courage.” Indeed, vulnerability is a sign of internal strength and courage and can lead to restoration and connection. It can also help us achieve a growth mindset, which is the idea that in the midst of difficulties, there is an opportunity for growth, and we have the ability to determine our future and what we can accomplish. Growth occurs when stress causes us to find a new approach, which enables personal progress and achievement in who we are becoming. Connect with colleagues who may very well be going through the same thing. You are not alone, and taking the getting help step is critical.
It’s important to recognize that we all struggle at some point in our lives, and getting help is not only courageous but responsible. Each year, we lose 400 physicians to suicide, and health care professionals experience suicidal ideation at a higher level than any other profession.
Reaching out could just be the biggest gift and saving grace you can give to yourself or a teammate. Have you asked for help in the past? Who did you go to and what kind of help was actually helpful for you? If you feel ready to share, tell us your experience in the comments below. Let us know in the comments below, or reach out to us on LinkedIn and Twitter!
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Lisa MacLean, MD is the chief clinical wellness officer at Henry Ford Health System where she helps physicians and residents learn to apply healthy coping strategies, find good life balance, and deliver high-quality health care to patients. Her goal is to empower physicians to become positive role models in teaching wellness to their trainees and patients.