Yet another doctor has committed suicide recently. The 3rd in the past year in the UK that I know about. There are probably more. It is so sad. On the face of it, many people might think what do doctors have to be so depressed about? The public still imagine that being a doctor comes with a good job, good income and the respect of the population in general. Those of us in the profession and our loved ones know better. For most doctors, the work is relentless. The NHS is no longer fit for purpose. There are too many patients with less resources to care for them. There is more and more paperwork borne out of the NHS having too many ‘managers’ who analyse medical errors and harm and feel that creating another form to fill in will prevent future incidents. They fail to realise that what is needed is more funding to employ enough staff for the numbers of patients we treat. They fail to realise that they need to invest in their staff and make them feel appreciated and valued for their hard work and for doing more than they are contracted to do. They need to examine the levels of sickness and absenteeism and realise that burnout is real and so is depression. Above all, they need to realise that without preventative measures, doctors will continue to work themselves until they simply can’t.
Although the UK rates highly in a lot of economic and living standards indices, being a rich developed 1st world nation, it doesn’t do so well with mental illness. The positive news is that the UK had made it into the top 20 of the world’s happiest countries in 2017 (it was previously 23rd and is now 19th) for the first time since 2012 when the world happiness report started being published annually.
In March 2017, the Mental Health Foundation commissioned a survey to look into prevalence of mental health in the UK and to identify the factors about individual that make them vulnerable to suffering from a mental illness. It found that 7 out of 10 women, those aged 18-34 and those living alone had a mental illness. Only 1 in 10 of the whole population are happy most of the time. Women are 3 times as likely as men to suffer a mental illness. Stress is a growing problem. Majority of people suffer from either a generalised anxiety disorder, depression or phobia. Self-harm and suicide are not classed as mental disorders but are a response to mental distress usually cause by mental illness that has not been recognised and treated.
With these statistics in mind, it is easy to see why young female doctors are at risk of mental illness. Couple that with the fact that medicine attracts people with a type A personality who are high achievers and do not like to admit they have a ‘weakness’ or that they need help. I have already described working conditions in today’s NHS. No wonder so many young female doctors are struggling and every year, we lose a few to suicide. What I find particularly difficult with this is that when colleagues pay tribute to those who have died, there is always a huge sense of shock. Unfortunately, these women hide their illness so well that often even their closest confidants have no idea how much despair they are in. Their friends often describe them as ‘superwoman’, someone who ‘has it all’, always helping others, taking on incredible amounts and managing to ‘juggle it all’ somehow. They give so much to others that they forget to give their selves.
Caring. Freedom. Generosity. Honesty. Health. Income. Good governance. These are the things that increase happiness and promote mental well-being according to the Mental Health Organisation. I would sum it up as friendship. I think human beings are social creatures (yes, even the introverts) and need to have at least one good nurturing relationship. This is intrinsically linked to self-worth. Many people who have attempted suicide and lived to tell their story say that depression and anxiety eroded their self-worth to such an extent that they felt useless and that the world would be better without them in it. Depression interferes with rational ordered thinking. When it is severe, it is like being in a deep dark hole, full of doubts and lacking in any hope. Far from being selfish, I believe people who contemplate suicide are (in their warped thinking) being selfless and believe in that moment that they are un-burdening those around them.
So is there anything we can do to turn the tide? Most experts agree that by the time a person has planned to commit suicide, it is probably too late to do anything. The depression has taken over and has them fully in its grasp. Where we can make a difference is at a much earlier stage. We need to prevent people with low mood going on to develop depression. We need to be that friend who validates their self-worth. The one who lets them know in words and action that their presence is very much appreciated in your life. We need to talk about mental health more so that someone at the early stages of depression feels able to confide in someone and seek help. If mental illness is so prevalent, why do we not talk about it more? Why are we ashamed to say, ‘I am depressed, I need time off work to get treatment/rest to get better’? Would any of us feel ashamed to call in sick at work if we developed appendicitis, had to have surgery and needed a few days to recover? Just because mental illness is invisible doesn’t make it less valid. I think this ultimately is what will turn the tide. Talking about it, admitting we have a problem and asking for help early, taking time out now to prevent getting to the point where all hope is lost and we feel like we have no other option other than suicide.
If you are reading this post and can identify with the desperation that mental illness can induce, please reach out to somebody. Ask for help and support. If you are in the UK, there are some very good resources. Your GP should be your first port of call. If you are feeling suicidal, call the Samaritans on the free phone 116 123. Mind has help pages online that can be accessed at https://www.mind.org.uk/information-support/types-of-mental-health-problems/suicidal-feelings/helping-yourself-now/#.WX8lFojyvIU as does Turn2Me at https://turn2me.org/?gclid=EAIaIQobChMIvKCtr8Sz1QIVT5PtCh2D7QnCEAAYAiAAEgKyyPD_BwE. The Mental Health Foundation has some great guides for promoting mental wellbeing which can be accessed on https://www.mentalhealth.org.uk/your-mental-health . The app Headspace comes very well recommended for dealing with stress, anxiety and depression.
If you are a medic, there is a wonderful Facebook group called Tea & Empathy for peer support for all those working in healthcare. It was founded after we lost another one of our young doctor colleagues a couple of years ago and is a brilliant space full of supportive caring people. The Wales Deanery has published a booklet specifically aimed at helping medics cope with the stress of the job. You can access it here: https://www.walesdeanery.org/sites/default/files/bakers_dozen_toolkit.pdf.
Finally, I want to say to you all: You matter. You are loved. You are not alone. Be kind to yourself x