Suffering in Silence: Mental Health Stigma and Physicians’ Licensing Fears [2018]

The growing national discussion around mental health care has exposed mental illness as the leading cause of disability in the United States. Given that almost 50% of Americans will meet diagnostic criteria for a mental health disorder during their lifetime, yet only 40% of individuals receive treatment for their illness, this increased awareness of mental illness is timely and valuable. Although much of the explanation for the 25% increase in the suicide rate over the past 20 years has focused on poor access to and financing of mental health care, cultural and societal stigma around mental illness have remained largely unchanged over the past two decades.

It is alarming that medical systems have been slow to respond to the growing mental health crisis. Part of the failure to adequately address mental health care may reflect physicians’ own unwillingness to engage with mental health treatment. Studies have found that about 35% of physicians do not seek regular health care for themselves. In one study, almost 50% of female physicians did not seek treatment despite feeling that they met criteria for a mental disorder. Although multifactorial, the source of this reluctance appears to be closely related to concerns around licensure and the stigma of mental illness within the medical community. The stakes of physicians’ poor self-health are dramatic, given that the suicide rate among physicians is 1.4–2.3 times higher than that of the general population. If members of the medical community cannot feel empowered to seek mental health care for themselves, it is perhaps naive to expect them to adequately address and treat serious mental illness in their patients.

Swapnil S. Mehta, B.A., Matthew L. Edwards, M.D.

The American Journal of Psychiatry Residents’ Journal, Volume 13, Issue 11, November 2018