Courage and Mental Health: Physicians and Physicians-in-Training Sharing Their Personal Narratives : Academic Medicine

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From the Editor

Courage and Mental Health: Physicians and Physicians-in-Training Sharing Their Personal Narratives

Coverdale, John MD, MEd; West, Colin P. MD, PhD; Roberts, Laura Weiss MD, MA

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Academic Medicine 96(5):p 611-613, May 2021. | DOI: 10.1097/ACM.0000000000004006
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Stress, distress, and symptoms of depression and anxiety are common among medical students, 1,2 residents, 3 and physicians. 4–6 Physicians are at risk for suicide, with women, nonmajority-identifying individuals, and members of certain specialties being particularly at risk. 7,8 Suicide is a leading cause of death among residents in programs accredited by the Accreditation Council for Graduate Medical Education 9 and is a tragic occurrence in medical students as well. 10,11

The existing well-being crisis in the health professions is now accentuated by a parallel crisis of emotional and physical harm associated with COVID-19. 12 Clinician well-being is thus a growing priority for health care leaders, policymakers, and other decision makers capable of bringing about system-level change. 13 A broad range of strategies exists at the organizational and national levels 12,14,15 for improving well-being within the workforce. However, having physicians share their personal stories about resilience in times of distress has not received much formal attention as a potential method to improve well-being.

We wrote this editorial to examine the potential value of self-disclosure about mental distress and illness. Speaking openly about one’s mental health requires a great deal of courage. We hope to underscore the critical need of cultivating a professional culture in academic medicine that accords a high priority to physicians’ and trainees’ mental health. Many physicians and trainees are living with mental health issues—no one is alone. The propensity to refrain from sharing personal stories regarding mental health is a disadvantage that deserves close attention.

In this issue of the journal, Dr. Kirk J. Brower, 16 chief wellness officer at the University of Michigan Medical School, writes about his mental health challenges. By sharing his story, Dr. Brower hopes to help reduce the stigma of speaking up about mental health issues and obtaining care. Dr. Darrell G. Kirch, 17 former president of the Association of American Medical Colleges, shares his mental health journey and asks all of us in academic medicine—especially struggling learners—to open up about our own mental health challenges to improve lives and potentially to save them. Christopher T. Veal 18 describes how, as a medical student, certain personal stressors brought him very close to ending his life. And an anonymous author 19 shares a personal story of overcoming depression as a medical student.

Breaking the Silence

Journals often publish personal stories related to professional challenges and overcoming them. The column A Piece of My Mind, published in JAMA, allows authors to express their despairs and delights in clinical practice and their experiences of trying to balance medicine with other parts of life. 20

Personal stories across journals have captured our attention over the years. One author 21 questions how she could be so blind to the abusive nature of a relationship, given her training in obstetrics and gynecology, and writes that breaking the silence and allowing others to help is the key to recovery. Another author 22 writes of her sexual assault in the form of a letter to her rapist, describing the physician who cared for her after the event as “the measure of the doctor I compare myself to.”

A middle-aged academic surgeon 23 writes about being involuntarily committed to a psychiatric hospital in the context of a long-standing history of dysthymia and depression. He endured, survived, recovered, lived. Because so many are silent due to the fear of stigma associated with mental illness, he felt compelled to tell his story to make it easier for others. A pediatrician 24 describes losing her medical license and becoming sober, finding herself in support groups with many other doctors overcoming their own challenges. The same author, 25 in another piece, walks us through her “relatively new self-harming disorder,” caught between her own expert, objective medical knowledge, and her own “intolerable emotions.” Bravely, she describes reaching out for help and, ultimately, healing.

A physician 26 describes how his own vulnerability and openness with colleagues reveals their compassion and understanding. After giving a grand rounds lecture telling his story of addiction, depression, and recovery, he received a standing ovation and hundreds of emails that shared others’ strengths and triumphs. Another writer 27 shares her experience with depression in medical school and the “admission of humanness” that is confiding with family, friends, and colleagues. “Depression is not weakness,” she states. “Admitting to depression is not weakness, it is further confirmation of an insidious, life-threatening epidemic in the medical profession.”

Healers are witnesses to death and disease, to vicarious trauma associated with patient care, and to sometimes overwhelming demands of service. Sharing our stories diminishes isolation by fostering connection with peers, 28 reminding us that we are not alone.

Potential Barriers to Disclosure

Stigma encourages the concealment of mental disorders out of fear of unfavorable treatment by others. 29–31 Concerns about medical licensure implications of disclosure and pursuit of treatment persist in many states in the United States. 31 In one survey 32 of program directors, respondents suggested that disclosing a mental illness during the residency application process reduces the chance of obtaining interviews and lowers the overall ranking for a residency interview. Perceived stigma may also influence residents’ willingness to seek health care, given concerns about jeopardizing confidentiality and training status. 33 Residents may be concerned about a director or supervisor learning about their personal health issues. 34 A majority of medical students with burnout probably eschew treatment. 35,36 In addition, medical students might not report severely ill classmates due to fears of breaching confidentiality and bringing adverse educational repercussions upon their ill colleagues. 37

Self-Disclosure and Stigma

When colleagues openly discuss their own mental health issues, they counteract stigma and prejudice. 16,17,38 One small randomized trial of medical students’ attitudes about mental illness compared those who were exposed to a panel of 2 physicians who discussed personal histories of mental illness with those who were not exposed. 39 Attitudes toward mental illness improved significantly in the intervention group but not in the comparison group. Most students across both groups agreed that knowing physicians further along in their careers who overcame mental health issues would make them more likely to access care if needed. In a second interventional study, 40 medical students spoke confidentially to their peers about their experiences with mental illness. Results suggested that the intervention led to a reduction in stigmatizing views toward mental illness.

In this issue, Vaa Stelling and West 41 describe how 3 self-selected faculty members shared their personal experiences with depression and mental health issues during a confidential conference for residents. Almost all of the residents who attended agreed that faculty members’ sharing of personal struggles destigmatizes mental health issues during training. Further studies are required, including those with larger numbers of participants, the provision of controls or comparisons, longitudinal follow-up, and the use of validated methods to assess outcomes.

Our Perspective

Dr. Abraham Verghese, 42 when describing the value of JAMA’s A Piece of My Mind column, counseled that we who are physicians now need stories more than ever as instructions for living, to renew faith in the practice of medicine, and to help us to realize that we are not alone in our worries, suffering, and heartbreak. Our work is hard and sometimes exhausting, and our professional standards—in the pursuit of excellence in all of our academic and clinical roles—are demanding. It is easy to fall short of our high standards and ideals, to err, and to think that we have failed. We are vulnerable to becoming unduly self-critical, and a medical culture of shame or blame cannot be a healthy one. The institutional culture should readily enable disclosure and discussion of stress or adversities. 43

Speaking up about personal adversities and mental health challenges empowers others to do the same and mitigates the shame and stigma associated with mental illness. With this in mind, institutional leaders and professional organizations must continue to work to minimize stigma and remove reprisals for self-disclosure at all levels of training and practice. And all of us in academic medicine, Dear Reader, must continue to examine the organizational and cultural factors that promote burnout, distress, and suffering and that limit help-seeking. Lives depend on it.


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