AUSTRALIA’S LEADING INDEPENDENT MEDICAL PUBLICATION I www.australiandoctor.com.au THE SURVIVOR Dr Geoffrey Toogood ‘It wasn’t the stroke I needed to recover from, it was the severe depression.’ THE FIGHTER Dr Kate Johnson ‘I want to open up the dialogue to people who are suffering in silence.’ THE BEREAVED Susan Bryant ‘Since I sent my email, many doctors have told me how mental illness has affected them.’ THE GP Dr Janette Randall ‘I have treated other colleagues over the years who have struggled to accept their limitations.’ A WALL of silence has surrounded the issue of doctors’ mental health and the tragic end result of its neglect, suicide, for too long. How many doctors take their own lives every year is unknown. But in the past six months, a number of highly publicised cases have put the issue firmly in the national spotlight. In January, it emerged that 29-year-old Dr Chloe Abbott had taken her own life. She was the third known junior doctor in NSW to do so in as many months, which her family says was the result of “brutal” working conditions. In response, the state’s health minister launched an investigation to find out why so many young doctors were being pushed to the edge of despair. Then Brisbane gastroenterologist Dr Andrew Bryant took his own life. He was a highly regarded physician, with no history of depression, but who, according to his wife, had started worrying about practice finances and his heavy workload. His sudden death made it clear • Lifeline on 13 11 14: For support and information about suicide preven- Print Post Approved PP100007880 2 JUNE 2017 Doctors are human too Let’s end the silence – four people share their stories See page 2 • It’s time to tackle the issue of doctors’ mental health, which is so poor that suicide rates within the profession far outstrip those of the general population • Doctors and their families are now speaking out and demanding change so no one has to suffer in silence anymore MESSAGE FROM THE EDITOR that young doctors weren’t the only ones being affected. The profession has responded to these latest deaths in a way not seen before — doctors and their families are openly discussing their own experiences of mental illness’ insidious grasp on medicine. Finally, it seems, the wall of silence is starting to crumble. This edition of Australian Doctor honours those who are trying to end the myth that doctors’ lives can’t be messy or difficult — or human — a reality that for too long has been dismissed as an unacceptable weakness. The dominant themes of their stories will surprise no one who works in healthcare. Blame is rightly levelled at the ‘culture of medicine’, the way it creates a harsh, unsympathetic environment where doctors are expected to cope with whatever’s thrown at them, with little support from peers and mentors. It’s a caring profession that struggles to care for its own. But what has made medicine this way is as much political as personal. The places doctors train and work are by their very nature stressful. But they become toxic when they’re underresourced and mixed with fears over the consequences of errors and mistakes. Doctors work long, inflexible hours in poorly staffed organisations where patients are increasingly sicker and requiring ever more complex care. When all this wears them down to the point of illness, they feel they can’t take time off as there’s no one to cover for them. To protect their overloaded colleagues and vulnerable patients they soldier on. In such an environment, how can we expect doctors to help and support each other, when they can’t even help themselves? Added to this, are the mandatory • Suicide Callback Service: 1300 659 467: A 24-hour 7-day a week service that provides free counselling for anyone affected by suicide. reporting laws. When lives start to unravel, doctors’ fear of being reported to AHPRA, and the loss of their professional career, results in an unwillingness to seek help. So the silence is encouraged. Surely, it is time for governments and healthcare organisations to step- up and take some responsibility for the mental welfare of the country’s medical workforce? Action is needed at the top to increase staffing levels, reduce excessive working hours, boost resources, embrace flexible working and develop a medical workplace culture that is no longer toxic, but supportive. Action is also needed to reform the mandatory reporting laws. As shown in the following pages, doctors and their families are speaking out, they’re demanding change. This week’s Australian Doctor is dedicated to all those who have been brave enough to do so. We hope their courage will inspire others to seek help, rather than suffer in silence. Jo Hartley • Doctors Health Advisory Service: A helpline for calls relating to stress, mental illness, drug and alcohol problems, or personal and fi nancial diffi culties. State numbers on page 4.