Mental Health Awareness for Medical Professionals

With the COVID-19 pandemic raging through our communities, many clinicians have experienced stress and feelings of burnout. What better time to recognize physicians and other practitioners with behavioral health needs than during May, Mental Health Awareness Month.

“Our healthcare workers have been through a massive amount of trauma,” said Leah Weiss, PhD, founding faculty of the Compassion Institute in Los Angeles. “It’s important to realize when things get out of crisis mode, the work is not done.”

Barry Shore, author of The Joy of Living: How to Slay Stress and Be Happy, called healthcare the “most stressful occupation in the world” with people in it the “least likely to seek help.”

Mental health awareness issues for clinicians

Optimal health and well-being includes more than a person’s physical health. It also encompasses mental health. And while healthcare professionals often recognize that in their patients, they may ignore it in their personal lives.  

Burnout and
physician suicide rates were high long before the pandemic. But the long hours, exhaustion, risk of infection and frequent patient deaths from COVID-19 exacerbate the problem of physicians and mental health.  

“There is co-active trauma from losing physicians to suicide and COVID-19 and COVID complications,” Weiss said.
 

Addressing mental health issues in medicine is critical to clinicians and patients. While burnout remains hazardous for clinicians’ health, it also affects quality patient care, creating safety problems, cynicism and less ability to pay attention, Weiss said. It also can affect relationships, at home and with colleagues.
 

“It’s good for everybody to recognize the humanity of the clinicians,” Weiss said.  

Healthcare changes needed for long-term solutions

Preventing clinician burnout and “untenable stress and toxicity” requires systemic change to the healthcare culture, Weiss said. Even before the pandemic, clinicians were suffering these consequences of moral injury, due to not being able to provide the quality of care necessary. Pre-pandemic, the issues often included time constraints and insurance coverage issues.  

“A massive first step is acknowledging when a person is in an untenable situation to create an environment where they can address and discuss their frustrations to be heard and, better yet, responded to,” Weiss said.

Weiss indicated that physicians already know the importance of getting adequate rest, eating healthy foods and exercising, but the system often makes that impossible. Physicians often lack the time and energy to do these things.
 

Yet, small things—such as a quick meditation or listening to something inspiring on the way to work—can make a difference, she said. Mindfulness, staying in the moment, and self-compassion can prove helpful in improving physicians’ mental health.

Strategies to manage clinician stress

Shore had three recommendations for clinicians to manage stress and distress: 

1. The first is diaphragmatic
breathing, in through the nose and out through the mouth. He recommended taking four conscious, loving breaths four times daily, spaced throughout the day, from rising to bedtime.  

2. Secondly, he recommends spending 55 seconds every morning “opening channels of goodness,” to reduce stress and live in joy. Moving one’s arms three times from the heart outward with deep breathing can empower physicians and other clinicians to become “joy generators.”
 

3. His final suggestion was to add saying “quiet mind, silent mind” on the exhale of the four diaphragmatic breaths, which open up the channels of giving and receiving and reduce negative stress. Videos of the two latter steps are available at
Shore’s website.  

“[Healthcare workers] are under siege and need these modalities,” Shore said.
 

Physicians are trained to compartmentalize and suppress their emotions, but at some point, those feelings must come out, Weiss said. A safe place to express those emotions can help clinicians’ mental health. She said some organizations have created confidential peer-mentorship programs, to normalize the need for support.
 

“You can get help, and you are cared about,” Weiss said.

Removing the stigma of mental health care in medicine

Receiving mental health care remains a stigma, especially among healthcare professionals. American Medical Association President Susan R. Bailey, MD, wrote in a September 2020 blog that the association has long spoken up against that stigma and encourages physicians to receive behavioral health services, and for licensing boards and credentialing bodies to protect patients’ privacy and confidentiality.  

AMN Healthcare and the National Alliance on Mental Illness (NAMI) have entered into a StigmaFree Company partnership. As a company of AMN Healthcare, Staff Care aims to remove the stigma associated with mental illness and create a safe place for people to ask for help. AMN also offers its team members a wellness program, an employee assistance program and virtual visits covered by AMN insurance plans.

Resources for clinicians coping with mental health issues

  • The Physician Support Line, 1-888-409-0141
  • National Suicide Prevention Lifeline, 1-800-273-8255
  • Association of American Medical Colleges, Well-Being in Academic Medicine
  • National Academy of Medicine, Action Collaborative on Clinician Well-Being and Resilience
  • Confronting Depression and Suicide in Physicians: A Consensus Statement, JAMA
  • Center for the Study of Traumatic Stress, Recovery and Reintegration for Healthcare Workers Following COVID-19 Surges

  • Help is available and seeking it should represent a badge of courage. Healthcare professionals have been through so much during the pandemic. Do not hesitate to reach out for assistance if needed.

    Related:
    How Healthcare Professionals Can Successfully Battle Burnout—Even During a Pandemic

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