“I have had the pistol in my mouth and would have pulled the trigger, save for leaving my child without a parent,” responded an unnamed emergency physician in a survey conducted by Dr Louise Andrew from the American College of Emergency Physicians.

“Does anyone honestly think anyone in our position would report this type of thought to any board and go under the microscope? … If I were a plumber or musician, I would just go to see my psychiatrist, take medication, and go on with my life,” the respondent added.

“We are held to an impossible double standard.”

50% of female doctors do not seek help for mental health problems

Over 2,000 female physicians were surveyed in a recent study, to which almost half believed that they fulfilled criteria for mental illness at a point in their career, but avoided seeking treatment, due to the fear of reporting to the medical licensing board as well as the shame embarrassment of being diagnosed with a mental illness.

"I have definitely suspected a lot of people were feeling the stigma, but I was really astonished by how high the numbers really were," said Katherine Gold, the study's lead author and assistant professor of family medicine and obstetrics and gynaecology at the University of Michigan Medical School.

Out of those with a formal diagnosis of a mental health issues, only 6% disclosed their health information to the licensing board.

"All of my fears were realised when I did report it. I was placed in a very strict and punitive PHP [physician health plan] that didn't allow me to take meds written by my doctor for anxiety and insomnia,” shared a doctor who disclosed having a mental illness to the licensing board.

“I am now not practicing at all because of this."

Female physicians face additional stress at work due to gender

According to Andrew, the higher incidence of job-related stress leads to a higher susceptibility for physicians to commit suicide.

“There is knowledge of and access to lethal means,” she added. “When a physician reaches a point of despair, it's a lot easier to just end it all than it would be for the normal layperson.”

This is especially true for female health professionals, who, unlike women who are not physicians, complete suicide at the same rate as their male counterparts.

In addition to the stressors from their jobs, the personality traits of doctors, such as perfectionism and altruism, can make them more vulnerable to mental illnesses, and women may face additional pressure at work due to their sex.

"I have long been trying to understand why women physicians have quite a high death rate by suicide compared to women in general or other professional women,” said Dr Michael F. Myers, professor of clinical psychiatry at SUNY Downstate Medical Center.

“But we are still living with some residual sexism in medical education and medical practice, despite the progress in equality that has been made in recent years,” he also said, adding that the micro-inequities may add to the reluctance of his female colleagues to declare that they are unwell.

Rights of a doctor, when they become patients

While the study focused on female physicians, mental health problems affect healthcare professionals of both genders, and men may also face difficulty in seeking help.

Dr Uma Visvalingam, a consultant psychiatrist at Putrajaya Hospital, said there was prejudice against those with mental health problems because most people had misconceptions about their condition.

"They do not really understand the difference between mental illness and mental health problems. The two conditions have different medical approaches,” she added, explaining that mental health problems and illnesses are at a spectrum of the psychiatric scale, with the latter being more critical, requiring medication and time for treatment.

However, doctors may consider this a taboo, as they themselves are medical professionals, and may avoid seeking help as they believe they would be judged both by their peers and the community as being incompetent. Declaration of a mental illness to the medical board, may also be deemed as a breach of privacy.

“It is very clear that these fears of further intrusion are what deters – in many cases, prevents – physicians from seeking the care they would have no trouble seeking if they were people who didn’t have these kinds of regulatory burdens imposed on them,” said Andrews.

“It is so wrong on so many levels,” she added. MIMS

Read more:
When the identity of female doctors is eroded due to gender discrimination
Should doctors be more transparent about their own mental illnesses?
Poor mental health is a greater source of danger to men than women