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Why Physicians Don't Report Their Own Mental Illnesses

News  |  By HealthLeaders Media News  
   October 13, 2016

Half of surveyed medical doctors believe that they likely had a mental illness at some point. One in three have received a formal mental health diagnosis since medical school.

Physicians might urge their patients to seek treatment for issues like depression and anxiety, but when it comes to their own mental health, many are far less willing to get help.

They fear stigma and even possible sanctions for revealing their diagnosis, according to a study published in General Hospital Psychiatry.

Nearly half of the surveyed physicians in the study believed they had met the definition for a mental illness at some point during their career, but had not sought treatment.

Researchers at the University of Michigan Medical School fielded an anonymous 24-question survey among more than 2,100 female physicians who are also mothers via a closed Facebook group.

Almost half the respondents believed that they likely had a mental illness at some point. One in three had been given a formal mental health diagnosis since medical school.

However, two–thirds reported that fear of stigma drove them to keep their worries quiet.

Many thought they could manage their situation on their own, including writing their own prescriptions or paying cash for visits to avoid having an insurance company record, says lead researcher Katherine Gold, MD, MSW, MS.

Many states require physicians to report any mental diagnosis to their state medical licensing board. Such reports often result in increased investigation by boards, the researchers said.

"There has always been a stigma and a fear around mental illness, and that's what's reflected in many state licensing board questionnaires," Gold said in a statement accompanying the publication of the study.

Inconsistent Reporting Guidelines

"There's a huge discrepancy between what states ask about physical conditions—such as whether those conditions affect their ability to practice—and what they ask about mental conditions, where the impact on their abilities is not asked about."

State licensing board questionnaires vary widely, the researchers noted. Some ask if physicians have ever been diagnosed with a mental health problem, while others ask if they've had such a diagnosis in the last few years. Others ask if physicians have ever been hospitalized for a mental health reason.

Simply not disclosing their mental health diagnosis at all seems to be the solution for most physicians: The survey showed that just 6% of those who had ever been diagnosed had reported it to their state licensing board, as most felt their condition didn't affect the care they gave.

Other reasons for non-disclosure included:

  • Respondents' belief they could manage independently
  • Limited time
  • Embarrassment or shame about a diagnosis

Researchers called for several reforms in response to their findings, including modernizing state licensing board questionnaires, modifying hospital credentialing, and increasing support and education among physicians and medical students to destigmatize mental healthcare.

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