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Supporting the mental health of doctors and medical students

Although in recent years mental health awareness among the general population has improved, it remains a taboo subject among the medical profession. Previous research has found that doctors and medical students are hesitant to disclose a mental health condition and are reluctant to seek help.

To increase understanding of mental health issues among the medical profession, attitudes towards seeking support, and whether the support services currently available meet doctors’ needs, the BMA launched a major project in 2018. The overall aim of the project is to inform policy solutions that will improve the mental health of the workforce and ultimately lead to better patient care. 

 

 

Report: 'Caring for the mental health of the medical workforce'

This report provides a summary of findings from a large-scale survey into doctors’ and medical students’ mental health. The survey, which was open to BMA members and non-members across the UK received over 4,300 responses.

Download the full report

 

Key points

Doctors can be vulnerable too

At any one time, a proportion of the medical workforce is managing a diagnosed mental health condition of their own. Mental health is not static; it can deteriorate but it can improve too and there are opportunities for doctors to learn from and support each other through their own experience. Experiencing poor mental health should not be associated with failing as a doctor.

20190196 BMA Mental health infographics for the website

  • Four in 10 respondents to our survey reported currently experiencing symptoms of depression, anxiety, burnout, stress, emotional distress or a mental health condition that is impacting on their work/training/study
  • 27% of respondents reported being diagnosed with a mental health condition at some point in their life, 7% said they were diagnosed in the past year

The working environment has an impact on doctors 

Doctors working the longest hours appear to be most vulnerable to psychological and emotional disturbance. Older and more senior doctors are most likely to report that their working environment has impacted on their condition. These findings should serve as caution against the idea that doctors can deliver ever more with fewer resources, regardless of the cost to their own wellbeing. 

Nine in 10 respondents stated that their current working, training, or studying environment had contributed to their condition to some extent

Doctors should have access to support when they need it 

Awareness of how to access support varies, as does the extent to which support meets doctors’ needs. Junior doctors were most likely to say they were not aware of how to access help or support.

  • 54% said the support provided by their employer or medical school fully met their needs 

The mental health of the workforce needs further support

Employers and medical schools should do more to prioritise mental and physical support and tackle the stigma around accessing support services. It is vital that they take a proactive approach to offering support. Doctors and medical students need to be reassured that seeking help will not negatively impact their career pathway.

Responsed said they had asked for but were not offered support by their employer or medical school

  • 45% of respondents had been offered support for a mental health condition
  • 19% of respondents said they would not seek help or support from their employer or school

 

Principles to improving mental health among doctors and medical students

Building a supportive culture 

  • Valuing the NHS workforce: promoting shared values, fostering a sense of fulfilment and enjoyment at work, involving staff in mental health policy design and implementation, offering adjustments (time off, reduced hours)
  • Preventing the cause of ill-health: reducing risks and pressures, fostering a no-blame environment
  • Raising mental health awareness: addressing the stigma around accessing support services, normalising and encouraging help-seeking behaviour, offering education/training opportunities to improve awareness, creating mental health champions
  • Offering support: recognising and providing support for potentially stressful events/situations (traumatic incidents, career transitions), training supervisors/educators to help signpost to services

Enhancing access to support

  • Improving awareness of services: promoting services regularly, encouraging the use of services, providing clear guidance on support procedures
  • Meeting service user needs: providing access to or signposting to mental health support services, addiction support services and occupational health support, ensuring any services offered provide timely, confidential and flexible support
  • Providing spaces to rest: ensuring staff have access to areas where they can have refreshments, speak with colleagues, reflect on experiences

Encouraging self-care and peer support

  • Self-care: valuing and maintaining one’s mental health, acknowledging support available to you for support
  • Peer support: recognising ill-health in colleagues and offering support, understanding the difficulties colleagues face and being alert to signs of mental health problems, fostering a collegiate and inclusive environment

 

Report: ‘Personal stories of doctors in training with experience of mental illness’  

This paper gives unique insights into what it is like to experience mental illness during a doctor’s trainee years by drawing on a review of the literature and  interviews with stakeholders and trainee doctors.

It attempts to understand the factors, specific to their occupation, that may have contributed to their illness, the barriers they faced in seeking help, and the factors that influenced their recovery. 

This report draws on these experiences to develop a series of recommendations designed to improve the support available to doctors experiencing mental illness.

Download the report

 

Key points 

Doctors work when they know they are unwell and are reluctant to take sick leave

A number of participants in the study had knowingly continued working even though they knew they were ill and sometimes after they had been diagnosed and advised to take sick leave.  

Doctors are concerned that their illness will be disclosed

Most participants, if they could avoid it, did not disclose their illness to their educational supervisor or anybody else who might have any influence over their career progression. 

Doctors can struggle to access support

Access to appropriate support was impeded for the interviewees in a number of ways including cultural barriers.

Going back to work can be difficult

Returning from sick leave was difficult for a number of respondents. Experiences varied with regards to support from their line managers and occupational health services.