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Mental Health Stigma In The Medical Profession

In the competitive world of medicine, Dr. Lisa Harbury Lerner stood out as an example of success. As a Harvard-educated dermatologist, she navigated her career with precision and dedication, earning the respect of her colleagues and patients. Behind this professional facade, Dr. Lerner was silently battling depression, only telling the closest people in her life. She is not alone, however, as this is an experience many doctors in our country face due to the stigma that surrounds mental health in the medical field. 

From intrusive inquiries into mental health history to the fear of professional repercussions, physicians face various barriers in their search for support and healing. We will dive into the challenges physicians encounter when navigating mental health disclosure requirements, explore efforts to reform these practices, and highlight the importance of fostering a culture of support within the medical community.

Dr. Lerner’s husband, Dr. Ethan Lerner, who was also a dermatologist, recounts the anguish of watching his accomplished wife grapple with the invasive inquiries into her mental health as part of her professional obligations, saying that it was “unbelievably uncomfortable.” Her husband also mentioned that the sudden death of their adult son became too much for her to bear. Dr. Lerner’s story took a devastating turn when she died by suicide two years later at the age of 58.

Her experience serves as an important reminder of the dangerous stigma surrounding mental health in the medical profession, affecting access to care and taking a toll on the lives of physicians and their loved ones. Surveys reveal that more than 40 percent of physicians refrain from seeking assistance for burnout or depression due to the fear of scrutiny from medical boards or employers. This results in physicians not speaking up about their issues as they feel their livelihood is at risk by doing so. 

In Massachusetts, an initiative is underway to challenge these norms and break down the barriers to mental health care for doctors. All hospitals and health insurers in the state have promised to stop asking physicians about their history of mental illness and addiction when determining if someone can safely care for patients. It aligns with the actions taken by medical licensing boards in over twenty-four states, which have ceased posing extensive inquiries regarding physicians’ mental health. By reframing the discourse surrounding mental health disclosure, Massachusetts aims to cultivate a culture of support and understanding within the medical community.

The COVID-19 pandemic has cast a spotlight on the toll of burnout among healthcare workers—a toll exacerbated by the unprecedented demands placed on frontline providers. As hospitals overflowed with critically ill patients and resources ran out, healthcare professionals found themselves on the brink of exhaustion. In 2022, nearly half of healthcare workers report experiencing burnout frequently, with rates even higher among physicians.

Dr. Lorna Breen, an emergency room physician in New York during the pandemic, faced immense stress as her working hours became longer and supplies ran out while hospitals were overcrowded with COVID patients. Although she knew she was struggling and those around her got her into psychiatric treatment in another state, she was worried about what others thought and didn’t want to lose her job. Unfortunately, Breen died by suicide in April of 2020. Her brother-in-law, J. Corey Feist, is chief executive of a foundation called The Dr. Lorna Breen Heroes’ Foundation which was named in her memory. Driven by a shared commitment to honor Dr. Breen’s legacy, the foundation has spearheaded efforts to reform licensing and credentialing practices nationwide.

By embracing progress and fostering a culture of support, we can ensure that physicians no longer suffer in silence. Let us stand united in our commitment to destigmatize mental health care and uphold the well-being of those who dedicate their lives to healing others. The strides made in Massachusetts offer a glimmer of hope and are a testament to the transformative power of collective action and advocacy.