• Dr. Jordan Vollrath

Mental Health Check: Support Strategies for Physicians on the Frontline

Updated: Apr 25

COVID-19 has pushed the healthcare system into the spotlight, and conversations surrounding the well-being of physicians are louder than ever before.

A pre-pandemic survey by the Canadian Medical Association found that one in three physicians experience symptoms of depression. In order to work smart and safeguard their mental health, physicians need to recognize when it’s time to recalibrate.

Don’t fall into the trap of sweeping mental health warning signs under the rug. Here are two common symptoms of physician distress, as well as tips for tackling them head-on:

Mental Health Warning Signs

Compassion Fatigue

Physicians are heroes, and there’s no denying that they experience a rewarding sense of duty inspired by their lifesaving work. At the same time, they additionally face the realities of suffering and death on a regular basis. This exposure can lead to compassion fatigue.

The CMA defines compassion fatigue as “the cost of caring for others for their emotional pain, resulting from desire to help relieve the suffering of others.” According to the Centre for Addiction and Mental Health, warning signs of the condition include:

  • Feeling overwhelmed, hopeless, helpless or powerless when hearing of others’ suffering

  • Feelings of anger, irritability, sadness and anxiety

  • Feeling detached from our surroundings or from our physical or emotional experience

  • Feeling emotionally, psychologically or physically exhausted, burnt out or numb

  • Physical symptoms such as nausea, dizziness, headaches

  • Reduced empathy

  • Feeling hypersensitive or insensitive to stories we hear

  • Limited tolerance for stress

  • Self-isolation and withdrawal

  • Relationship conflict

  • Feeling less efficient or productive at work

  • Reduced pleasure in activities we used to enjoy

  • Difficulty sleeping and nightmares

  • Difficulty concentrating, focusing or making decisions

  • Self-medicating and increase in substance use

But don’t fret! By recognizing the early signs and seeking intervention, physicians can flip the script and cultivate a greater sense of well-being within.

Moral Distress

From staffing shortages, to overtaxed ICU’s, the COVID-19 pandemic has highlighted the foundational cracks that exist within the healthcare system. Most recently, medical professionals have begun to speak out about the moral distress they’re experiencing due to the acute pressure of their occupation.

According to the CMA, “Moral distress occurs when one feels unable to take what they believe to be an ethically appropriate or right course of action, including avoiding wrongdoing or harm, because of institutionalized obstacles. It is a psychological response to an experience of moral conflict or moral constraint, which is especially likely to occur during public health emergencies and in other situations when there are extreme resource limitations affecting patient care and the safety of health care workers.”

If you think you may be experiencing moral distress, ask yourself the following questions:

  1. Do I feel unable to do the right thing?

  2. Do I feel like my values are being compromised or undermined?

  3. Do I feel like I’m unable to meet my professional duties?

  4. Am I facing ethically challenging issues, unable to move forward?

If you answered yes to any of these questions, you might be suffering from moral distress. The good news? Identifying moral distress is the first step towards receiving the support you need.

Mental Health Support Strategies for Physicians

While moral distress and compassion fatigue can pose immense challenges to physician mental health, recovery is possible. You can enjoy a long and successful career in medicine by taking the following actionable steps to rebalance your mental health:

Checklist for improved physician mental health:

  • Attend peer support groups:

Talking through your feelings and frustrations with people who understand is one of the best antidotes to struggle. If your local medical community doesn’t host its own, the CMA offers a virtual support group for physicians in need, CPG Burnout Rx is a physician Facebook group designed to offer a safe space to discuss burnout, and The Burnout Rx channel on TheRounds offers physician peer support discussion with strictly verified physician users.

  • Meditation

Practicing meditation is proven to decrease stress and promote well-being. Apps like Headspace and Calm provide beginner-friendly guided meditations to help you get started.

  • Get Regular Exercise

Physical activity is one of the top ways to regulate your mood while staying fit. Don’t have time to hit the gym? Try implementing small bursts of movement into your routine, like doing lunges while waiting for the kettle to boil.

  • Take a Leave of Absence

Knowing when it’s time to slow down and take a break is a crucial skill. While taking time away from your practice can seem like a logistical challenge, this isn’t necessarily the case. In fact, Cherry Health helps match physicians to available locums to cover their time off, so that you can rest assured that your patients are receiving top tier treatment in your absence. Once you return, you’ll emerge fresh and focused, ready to continue providing excellent medical care to your patients.

Physicians like you provide an admirable service to society, but you can’t pour from an empty cup. Cherry Health offers doctors the opportunity to keep the balance in both their routine and mental health. Download our free app to discover our locum matchmaking platform that will ensure you never spread yourself too thin again.

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