Health care professionals and emergency responders confront the brutality of injury and illness on a daily basis.
Too often we assume these heroes can block out the horrors and heartbreak of their jobs, that they are superhuman. But the idea that doctors, nurses, officers and EMTs are impervious to mental illness is untrue.
Studies show health care and emergency professionals suffer from immense psychological and emotional distress related to their jobs. Suicide rates are rising in the health care profession. Every year, 150 medical students and 400 doctors take their own lives. Female nurses are four times more likely to commit suicide than the average woman. Despite the daily dangers of the policing profession, suicide is the top killer in law enforcement.
Health care workers and law enforcement officials need psychological and emotional support to handle the stress of their professions. In the aftermath of national emergencies and attacks on citizens and law enforcement, we must recognize that health care workers and emergency responders are possibly recovering from significant psychological damage. As concerned colleagues, family members and friends, we can do more to help our rescuers cope with the stressful nature of their jobs.
▪ Leadership: First, leaders must acknowledge the psychological strain of the health care and emergency professions. They are subjected to the same or greater statistical odds of suffering from a mental health condition as others in society. Leaders in these professions should make personal wellness a top priority and stop to reflect after stressful events.
▪ Community: Colleagues can do their part by reminding co-workers of their worth as a member of the team. Individuals who isolate themselves are more likely to ponder suicide. Invest in co-workers’ lives by asking them questions and listening to their stories.
▪ Cultural change: The cutthroat culture in many health care and medical education settings must cease. Instructors and faculty members must communicate a culture of positivity and denounce bullying behaviors. If a student is falling behind, listen and provide guidance to make a career-saving — or even life-saving — difference.
Stigmatization of mental health disorders is deeply rooted in society. Health professionals are reticent to receive treatment for mental health conditions due to fear of being stigmatized or possibly losing their careers.
The health care community has an important role in ending mental health stigmatization. Leaders should make resources and treatment for mental health conditions easily accessible. After they receive treatment for a mental health condition, we should embrace workers back into their professional community.
Mental health problems aren’t faults in character; they are diseases requiring treatment. The simple rule of acting in kindness and concern for our colleagues can help reduce the stigma of having a mental health condition that could lead to suicide.
Janie Heath is the dean of the University of Kentucky College of Nursing. Jan Findlay is an assistant professor of psychiatric/mental health nursing in the UK College of Nursing.