Reducing the stigma of clinician mental health, pressure to portray perfection

The following is a guest post from Stefanie Simmons, vice president of patient and clinician engagement at Envision Physician Services.

In the midst of the COVID-19 crisis, front-line healthcare workers have been portrayed as the heroes of the pandemic, and rightfully so. But even heroes face the physical and mental burdens of living and working during a global pandemic.

As clinicians, we care for patients when they are often the most vulnerable, and we work to establish trust and provide comfort in a time of need. We enter the medical field to care for others. 

During the pandemic, the normal stressors of being a clinician have been amplified as this disease spreads beyond the hospital, impacting our families and communities. The uncertainty of the pandemic coupled with the already high-stress situation of emergency medical care creates an acute crisis for clinicians’ mental health.  

Having practiced emergency medicine for more than a decade and a half, I know first hand how difficult it can be to prioritize mental health while working in healthcare. At the end of my residency, I had just given birth to my second child, and I was experiencing postpartum depression.

From the outside, I looked like I was at the top of my game, but on the inside I was grappling with this neurochemical imbalance and the high intensity work of an emergency physician. If you had asked me how I was doing, I would have said, “Fine.”

Clinicians are pressured to portray perfection. As a clinician, you are directly responsible for situations of life and death for your patients. There’s no room for error when you are saving a life, and this mental weight follows clinicians long after their patients leave the hospital.

Despite the good I was doing in the world, I felt angry and exhausted. The source of consistent help were my colleagues. They were struggling, too. Our “perfect physician” projection made us feel isolated, when in reality we were able to lend perspective and let each other know we weren’t alone. 

That experience helped renew my passion for improving health for not just patients, but clinicians, too. Since that time, I have continued to work with clinicians to break down the stigma around seeking mental health care. COVID-19 has highlighted the importance of mental health care for clinicians, but it isn’t just pandemics that impact a clinician’s wellness.

The culture of perfection and silence surrounding the practice of medicine has been around since the beginning of medicine. My hope is that COVID-19 causes healthcare leaders to prioritize clinician well-being, not just during the pandemic, but also moving forward. That means not only prioritizing clinician mental health and self-care, but also creating systems that allow clinicians to spend more time caring for patients and using their clinical skills and less time in documentation and administrative work. 

In the medical field, where clinicians spend long hours caring for patients, we often de-prioritize taking care of ourselves. My own experience and listening to the experiences of others made me a better physician colleague, mother, wife and friend.

Breaking down the culture of perfection isn’t easy. Doctors, nurses and advanced practice providers are looked to as helpers and healers, making it even harder to admit that they may need help themselves. Peer support allows clinicians to share experiences to help break down the feeling of isolation and loneliness. As a physician, putting words to these challenges and sharing common experiences with colleagues was one of the most powerful tools to help improve my own mental well-being.

Being a clinician is unlike any other profession — and both the good and the bad experiences are totally unique to healthcare. When I was struggling and felt like no one else could understand what I was going through, I learned there was a team of people who shared my same doubts and fears, that we could all work through together. 

During the COVID-19 pandemic, the world is experiencing an unprecedented level of uncertainty and fear as the virus continues to unfold. It is now more important than ever to not carry these burdens alone, but to check in on our colleagues and ourselves as we fight through this together.