Mental health matters - for health professionals

This month, Thrive Fellow Jess Morgan reflects on the stigma surrounding the mental health of NHS staff and offers advice and resources to help seeking support.
icon: two hands shaped around a symbolic heart that has a medical cross in the middle of it

I was a paediatric registrar, then life happened. One day, I found myself sitting in front of my GP, holding a prescription for antidepressants. A heavy shame hung over me. A sense that I should have been able to cope… I am one of many doctors who have accessed support for my mental health, because the reality is, that we are human. As such, we get sick, but with the right support, we also recover.  

I was speaking to a colleague recently. I’d opened up about my period of mental illness and in turn, he revealed his own experience, a vulnerability I had never known about. So, what is it that stops us from feeling able to talk?

In medicine, we often reward academic achievement. A sense that our success is measured by prizes, publications, presentations and projects. In doing so, perhaps we fail to really acknowledge the emotional burden of care giving. I’ve talked about this in previous Thrive blogs, but we cannot ignore the effect that being a doctor has on our wellbeing.

By revealing our own vulnerabilities and talking about some of the emotional impact of our job, we begin to dispel the myth and expectation that we just have to get on with it. In turn, this makes it easier for people to reach out when they really aren’t OK. Less shame and less stigma. 

Earlier this month, NHS Practitioner Health, a free, confidential specialist mental health service for NHS staff announced that it would no longer be accepting new referrals from secondary care healthcare workers. This was due to an NHS England commissioning process. Following a huge response from staff and organisations, people sharing their own personal experiences of mental illness and the support they gained from Practitioner Health, further funding was found to extend the provision for a further 12 months. You can read the College response.

The outpouring of support from the medical community following these events has reminded me that I was never alone, and, importantly, that seeking help is not weakness. 

Doctors in Distress is a charity that supports the wellbeing of health professionals. They offer a range of programmes including webinars, creative workshops and a weekly peer support sessions supported by an experienced facilitator. This confidential space offers health professionals a chance to talk about the challenges they face and share experience and advice. It is not a mental health service but is a valuable source of support for anyone who feels stressed, overwhelmed or wants some tips on self care. You can register for the weekly support group meeting.

For any paediatricians who may be reading this and feels overwhelmed or in need of support for their mental health, see the page on this website, Where to go for help and support for doctors' wellbeing - it includes the link to NHS Practitioner Health.

There is no shame in asking for help. Many of us need it, we just find it hard to talk about.