A new report shows lower rates of suicidal thoughts among physicians, but New York hospitals maintain vigilance
The work to address mental health challenges for providers needs to be maintained and transformed as trauma from the pandemic evolves over time, said Dr. Manish Sapra, executive director of the behavioral health service line at Northwell Health.
Telehealth and other new tools make accessing help easier. Making the services available at flexible hours would help, Sapra said, adding that health systems need to think about building resilience not just for any future COVID waves but other health crises as well.
At Northwell, core to its employee mental health strategy was establishing its Center for Traumatic Stress, Resilience and Recovery, announced in April last year. It provided both clinical and preventive services at launch, including resilience coaching and stress first aid, and it has since launched additional resources for employees. They include a confidential behavioral health navigation hotline and mental health training for residents and fellows.
The city’s public health system, NYC Health + Hospitals, organized its mental health efforts under its Helping Healers Heal initiative. It now has 18 teams and 1,000 peer support leaders across the system’s 11 hospitals. The program, too, has evolved to consider integrating wellness as part of resilience building, and H+H has leveraged philanthropy dollars to invest in the field, including bringing on its first chief wellness officer, Wei said.
But those resources will not necessarily be used.
“The biggest barrier to seeking help is stigma,” Sapra said. “We think we’re supposed to be helping others and not stop to take time for ourselves.” There’s a stigma in talking about mental health issues among physicians, much less actually receiving treatment, he said.
Among qualitative responses in Medscape’s report, there were answers that said providers avoided receiving psychiatric treatment because it could be reported to credentialing or licensing boards.
“One doctor wrote that to seek professional help, the doctor had to drive two hours to another town, didn’t use medical insurance and was treated under a different name, all so it wasn’t traceable,” said Leslie Kane, a senior director at Medscape.
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Some state medical boards and hospitals do ask physicians about mental health and substance-use conditions, Sapra said. But New York is fairly liberal, and local hospitals that do ask such questions tend to revolve around “impairment” rather than mental health, he added.
Sometimes, it’s not just the fear of not obtaining a license, Wei said: “It’s just the fear of being labeled weak.” There’s a sense that labels will stick with a doctor, closing doors to opportunities where “tougher” mindsets are needed, he said.
“That’s what we’re chipping away at with our programs,” he said.
Younger physicians seemed to respond to mental health and wellness programs better, the survey showed. Millennials were more likely to have confided in a friend or colleague (35%) about suicidal thoughts, compared with Generation X doctors (26%) and baby boomers (23%).
“It seems that millennials feel there is less shame in getting help, and are more willing to talk to anybody, not just a therapist, for seeking help,” Kane said.
More research and studies with cited data are being done, especially during the pandemic, that will help normalize seeking mental health assistance, Sapra said.
“It’s time for us to realize it’s OK not to be OK,” he said. “Our younger generation are absolutely leading the charge and asking the right questions.”
This story first appeared in our sister publication, Crain’s New York Business.