Why We Need to Help Doctors with PTSD Understand the Importance of Healing Their Trauma
Doctors work in an environment where trauma is commonplace, but becoming accustomed to it doesn’t rule out the chances of psychological scarring. The link between post-traumatic stress disorder and doctors is one that needs to be discussed and examined, and if your loved one is a doctor showing symptoms of this mental health challenge, you can aid their recovery through the promotion of acceptance and treatment.
Trauma is a given when working as a doctor. On a regular basis, they are exposed to the suffering of their patients, as well as the rippling effects that this suffering has on their patients’ friends, families, and loved ones. Over time, they might even seem like they’ve become accustomed to it, pressured to face it with a calm focus to maintain their professional image.
But beneath their calm exterior is a human just like you, and in the face of a busy job and countless patients day after day, it can be easy to forget that becoming accustomed to facing trauma doesn’t discount the negative effects that it can create.
The Link Between Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder and Doctors
In the face of extreme trauma, some people become psychologically damaged and develop disorders rooted in these events. It follows, then, that trauma-related disorders would be common in an environment that routinely involves death and suffering. Looking at post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), you’ll see it is much more prevalent among military veterans and emergency responders than the general population, and there’s a wealth of research that explores this relationship. Yet an examination of working as a doctor with PTSD is much more limited. There isn’t much out there, but one study found that the prevalence of PTSD in doctors that experienced needlestick injuries during training was 4.28 percent (higher than the 3 percent observed in the general population), while another found no connection between PTSD and surgical doctors exposed to terror-related victims. The lack of extensive, conclusive research on it pushes its significance into the background, and this dearth likely stems from the expectation of doctors to deal with these traumas and their acceptance of it. But acceptance isn’t always the healthiest route.
One study found that doctors working with PTSD are more likely to experience depression, anxiety, thoughts of death, and various other maladaptive mental states. Given the high-stress environment that they experience on a daily basis, experiencing these kinds of mental health challenges is not healthy for them or their work functioning. This is reflected in the same data, which suggests that doctors with PTSD are also more prone to negative coping strategies and decreased functioning on the job, both likely causes of the increased burnout observed in this profession.
You might think that the burden of depression and anxiety would be enough to push people into treatment, but not among doctors. In the study discussed above, just three of the 20 doctors that identified themselves with PTSD actually attended therapy. It’s a troubling statistic, but also one that reflects the potential solution for them: strong support and acceptance from loved ones and an emphatic push towards treatment.
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Promotion of Acceptance and Treatment
Since most doctors are reluctant to seek help on their own, we need to act as the catalysts for their recovery. Experiencing trauma every day can be overwhelming, and in people with PTSD, many people report feeling numb and detached from their surroundings, a defense mechanism commonly seen in trauma-related disorders. This presence of detachment highlights the importance of helping doctors with PTSD realize that they need help. They might feel immune or desensitized to the trauma that they see on a regular basis, so we must be the ones to help them acknowledge that it’s affecting them on a deeper level.
Yet even when doctors realize that they need help, many still don’t seek it because they’re afraid of losing their jobs. In a profession where you’re given the responsibility of taking care of other people’s lives, opening up about your mental health challenges can make you feel like you’re no longer equipped to do so. In reality, it is possible to get treatment for challenges such as PTSD without losing your job, and the sooner the better.
The Physician Impairment Policy written by the Federation of State Medical Boards defines impairment as “the inability of a licensee to practice medicine with reasonable skill and safety as result of”:
- mental disorder
- physical illness or condition
- substance-related disorders
But it’s important to know this: illness does not equate to impairment. In fact, the policy clearly distinguishes between “Functional Impairment” and a “Potentially Impairing Illness.” While the presence of an illness such as PTSD could lead to impairment, the policy acknowledges that many physicians who are living with these potentially impairing illnesses are functioning normally. Seeking treatment at this stage, prior to the development of impairments stemming from your illness, is the best option, as early diagnosis and treatment of mental health challenges like PTSD is always preferable.
Ideally, doctors can take a leave of absence and engage in residential therapy—here, they can address their trauma in a safe, non-judgmental environment that values confidentiality and the importance of the recovery process. However, for doctors looking for an option less intrusive to their worklife, a Physician Health Program (PHP) could be the right choice. PHPs are state-funded programs that allow doctors to get treatment while continuing to work, provided that they do not pose any risks to the public and meet contracted agreements, including regular mental health assessments. Through PHPs, they can retain their confidentiality and continue to help others, all the while receiving treatment to help themselves.
When you’re so used to helping others, it can be difficult to admit that you need help yourself, and fears of losing your status or job can compound this difficulty. As the loved one of a doctor suffering from PTSD, it’s important to help them understand that it’s okay to need help, and it doesn’t have to signify the end of their job. By promoting an acceptance of these facts and the importance of comprehensive treatment for doctors suffering from PTSD and other trauma-related disorders, we can ensure that the world of healthcare is balanced to promote the well-being of both patients and the people taking care of them.
Bridges to Recovery offers residential treatment programs for doctors living with Post-traumatic stress disorder. Contact us if your loved one is a doctor struggling with this mental health challenge and we can help them learn to address and resolve their trauma instead of pushing it away.
Lead Image Source: Unsplash user Todd Diemer