Doctors’ mental health in the spotlight

Apr 01, 2016

A beyondblue initiative is helping hospitals create mentally healthy working environments using the medical profession’s long-standing learning method – the Grand Round.

Grand Rounds have been a regular fixture in doctors’ calendars for over a century, providing a forum for clinicians of all levels to hone their diagnostic skills. A typical session might see a health professional sharing how they arrived at a particular diagnosis with colleagues, revisiting an unusual case history, or checking out the latest advances in medical technology.

Grand Rounds with a difference

Three recent Grand Rounds facilitated by beyondblue – at Frankston Hospital, Royal Brisbane and Women’s Hospital, and Melbourne’s Austin Hospital – put a different spin on this well-established format. Instead of focusing on caring for patients, the sessions encouraged doctors to turn their attention inward – to looking after themselves and their colleagues.

It’s a focus that’s clearly needed. In 2013, beyondblue’s National Mental Health Survey of Doctors and Medical Students found that medical professionals experience anxiety, depression and psychological distress at alarmingly high rates. One in five medical students and one in 10 doctors reported having suicidal thoughts in the past year.

As well as educating medical staff about mental health conditions, the sessions featured the personal experience of a fellow doctor – a powerful combination when it comes to reducing stigma and making mental health part of everyday conversations.   

“Fear of judgement”

Cardiologist Geoff Toogood regularly shares his experiences of anxiety and depression as a beyondblue speaker, helping to demystify mental health conditions by telling his story of recovery and resilience.

But when he spoke at the Grand Rounds at the Austin and in his own workplace, Frankston Hospital, it was a personal first – the first time he’d shared his story with many of his colleagues and peers.

Entrenched stigma and fear about potential damage to his career meant Geoff struggled with depression for several years before seeking support and treatment.

“Hospitals and medical workplaces need to walk the talk when it comes to creating an environment where people feel safe to share what they’re going through without it affecting their career,” he said.

“I worried about the treatment and the side effects, but what I feared most was the way others would look at and judge me. I thought I would lose my job if word got out.” 

Appetite for change

The Austin also used the Grand Round to further embed its new mental health and wellbeing framework. Building on existing initiatives, the framework includes medically driven peer support, an Employee Assistance Program on site and a mentoring program provided for and by Doctors in Training (DiTs). By integrating and improving on current programs, the Austin aims to raise the profile of what’s available for staff and how to access support.

Chief Medical Officer John Ferguson said that feedback from the session had been “extraordinarily positive”.

“The energy and enthusiasm has been almost overwhelming,” he said. “I am absolutely delighted and can only see our initiatives going from strength to strength; there is universal support from all our doctors and a willingness to really make a difference.

“We want everyone to be aware and feel comfortable and safe in raising any issues, knowing they will be managed respectfully, confidentially and appropriately.”

For Geoff, it’s all about practicing what you preach. “As health professionals we need to show leadership by seeking help when our mental health is suffering, and supporting our colleagues that have the courage to speak up,” he said. “After all, that’s what we’re asking the general public to do.”   

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