By Richard Juman, PsyD, Director of Behavioral Health Policy and Regulations, Co-Chair, Clinician Resiliency Core Group
This year, World Mental Health Day could not have come at a more crucial time. Anyone with even a casual interest in current affairs can’t escape the headlines around mental health issues.
Celebrity athletes such as Simone Biles, Naomi Osaka and Michael Phelps have brought awareness to mental health issues. Ongoing stressors such as the COVID-19 pandemic, racial tensions and political animosity have all contributed to a global worsening of mental health problems and crises. Collectively, it’s obvious that declines in mental well-being are pervasive, as statistics show significant increases in the prevalence of depression, anxiety, suicidality, opioid overdoses and other reliable indicators of mental illness.
The Impact of Untreated Mental Disorders in our Patients
There is a growing awareness that the wise clinician orchestrates a treatment plan that identifies and treats physical and mental disorders concurrently. Mental health problems can cause or exacerbate physical disorders. Physical disorders can cause or exacerbate mental disorders. For example, depression – perhaps the single most deleterious medical condition (physical or psychiatric) – has been shown to significantly impact mortality rates in studies of cancer outcomes.
Treating either physical or mental disorders in a vacuum fails to recognize the powerful connections between mind and body that can wreak havoc on the cost of treatment and on clinical outcomes. Keep in mind that depression and anxiety disorders, separate from all other mental health conditions, can be diagnosed in approximately 25% of the general public and are likely higher in the populations that we routinely treat.
Physician, heal thyself
Healthcare professionals are obviously not immune to mental disorders. For example, physicians have the highest suicide rate of any profession. And the demands that the COVID-19 pandemic has placed on us have buffeted clinicians as never before. Stress, burnout and “compassion fatigue” are all on the rise. In a recent survey, the majority of physicians described feelings of anger, tearfulness or anxiety as a result of practicing during the pandemic, but the vast majority of these clinicians did not seek treatment for these issues.
We owe it to ourselves to ensure our emotional and physical needs receive ongoing, equal attention.” – Dr. Richard Juman
The pandemic has highlighted a desperate need to destigmatize the experience of clinicians who experience mental health challenges and to create pathways that allow clinicians to seek treatment without fear of negative impacts on their careers. The traditional formula wherein clinicians ignore their mental health issues and try to “push through” is clearly not working, if it ever did. It must be replaced by an awareness that clinicians suffer from a litany of emotionally taxing, work-related stressors. We owe it to ourselves to ensure our emotional and physical needs receive ongoing, equal attention.
Clinicians who are experiencing increases in anxiety, depression or other mental health challenges must first create a wellness plan that puts their own well-being front and center. Such a plan will prioritize adequate rest, exercise, outdoor time, connections with friends and family, spiritual activities and soothing practices such as deep breathing, meditation or yoga. Clinicians whose mental health issues are interfering with their ability to practice owe it to themselves, and their patients, to seek professional support or treatment.