Programme reveals surge in numbers of doctors suffering with mental health problems

A doctor who sought help from a support programme for health professionals with mental health or addiction issues had not slept for 10 days, was not eating, and felt suicidal.

She was one of 75 health professionals helped by the Practioner Health Matters Programme which experienced a 60% increase in new cases last year.

Clinical lead of the PHMP, Dr Íde Delargy, said they knew that at any one time about 30% of health professionals would be struggling in one way or another with their mental health.

“We think more health professionals are coming forward because they know we exist and our reputation is building as a safe place to come and declare your problems,” she said.

However, Dr Delargy, who was speaking at the launch of the PHMP's third annual report, said they are still only seeing the tip of the iceberg.

Non-consultant hospital doctors, consultants and GPs made up 75% (58) of new referrals to the programme which is open to doctors, dentists and pharmacists.

Dr Delargy said the increase in health professionals supported by the programme showed the huge pressures many are under and the need for confidential service.

She said the programme, which has treated more than 200 health practitioners to date, had helped prevent both personal and professional catastrophes.

One non-consultant hospital doctor, who reached out to the programme admitted during her initial assessment that she had not slept for 10 days, was not eating and felt suicidal. The doctor's working conditions, the relentless demands of the service, her sense of isolation and lack of sleep had led to her having suicidal thoughts.

“We are asking health professionals, particularly young NCHDs, to be the best they can be while at the same time placing them in extremely difficult work environments and asking them to fulfil a challenging role – and all this very often while sleep-deprived.”

“Despite the fact that these are some of our most resilient people, we should not be surprised when that resilience sometimes breaks down. When this doctor presented to us, we signed her off work immediately and put her on medication as she was very agitated. Her recovery was slow but with the support of her family and her hospital she returned to work on a phased basis and was now back at full health and working full-time,” she said.

According to the report, 47 practitioners are being treated for stress, anxiety and burn-out; 37 cases relate to substance use; while 17 have significant health issues. More women presented than men last year – 43 females and 32 males, with the highest number of registrations in the 35 to 49 (30) and the 25 to 34 (26) age groups.

The independent charitable organisation is supported by the representative and training bodies for the medical, dental and pharmacy professionals as well as the three professional regulatory bodies. Last year the PHMP did not need to refer any practitioner to the regulatory bodies.

Case study: Sean, GP

Sean, a GP in his 60s, who became burned out and lost interest in his patients, is making excellent progress with the support of the programme.

He was afraid to disclose how he was feeling to anyone in the rural region he worked in and had resorted to alcohol as a way of de-stressing and helping him to sleep.

Within several weeks there was a significant improvement in Sean's mood and antidepressants were not needed.

While not alcohol dependent, he was advised to stop drinking completely because he was using it as a way of regulating his emotions.

Sean felt relieved to have a safe place to discuss the death of a close friend that was complicated by strong feelings of guilt at not having noticed sooner that his friend was ill.

He was advised to focus on diet and exercise as well as taking short breaks from the practice.

Case study: Ann, Pharmacist

Ann, a pharmacist in her 20s, made contact with the programme after a dispensing error.

Her patient had suffered an adverse event and Ann was devastated but no amount of reassurances from her supervisor helped. She was not sleeping properly and not eating well and became fearful of dispensing certain medications.

It emerged that Ann, a perfectionist and rigid thinker, was treated for depression and anxiety as a student, and an eating disorder as an adolescent re-emerged because of the stress she was under.

Ann felt able to fully disclose the various contributing factors to the way she was feeling including the divorce of her parents at a vulnerable age. She is now back working to full capacity in a more healthy and happier frame of mind.

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