Dealing with depression has made me a better doctor


I was a junior doctor when I experienced my first episode. The strange thing is, that despite my medical training (I may have bunked off a few of the relevant lectures in medical school), I didn’t recognize the symptoms.

I had lost my appetite and had lost weight.  I wasn’t sleeping and was irritable, angry and tired most of the time. Most disturbing to me was a feeling (despite being surrounded by work colleagues and friends most of the time) was that I felt emotionally cut off and removed from people. I had also become cynical and decidedly detached from my work responsibilities and, truth be told, had lost all empathy with my patients. Not a good combination for someone working in healthcare.

It took a conversation over coffee with a good friend of mine who is a psychiatrist to make me realize that I was depressed.

Although of course it is obvious to me in retrospect, I had no idea I was depressed at the time. Like many people, I had no clear sense of my mood on a day to day basis. Like most other doctors I just kept on going.

For the last 20 years, I’ve been on the receiving end of medical care from GP’s, psychiatrists and psychologists.  I’ve learnt a lot about mental illness, its treatment and how to look after myself better.

I have also learned a lot about the stigma of mental illness in medicine and how to cope with it. Largely, it has to be said, by keeping quiet about it.

Mental illness is, for many affected doctors, a shameful secret. One that can affect how other doctors perceive your reliability as a clinician and also one which could affect your career.   To admit to not coping in medicine is to be weak, to somehow let your community down, and to go against the macho code of invincibility that we have imposed on ourselves.

What’s ironic about the code of silence is that a significant proportion of doctors have experienced mental health problems. Up to a quarter of doctors will meet the criteria for a depressive illness by the end of their first year in training and other studies suggest that up to 51% of (female) doctors have a lifetime history of depression. Substance and alcohol abuse are common, burnout is common and suicide rates are higher than in other professions. Medicine is not as glamorous as it sounds.

At present, thanks to the medical care and advice I’ve received and the support of family I’m doing well. Most of the time. I’m more mindful of my own moods and more forgiving of myself when I make mistakes. I recognise the warning signs of an imminent crash and feel better equipped to deal with the symptoms when they come. I have learned to say no (and not feel guilty about it) and also to give myself the odd pat on the back and remind myself that I’m doing some good.

However awful I sometimes feel, I know that it will pass eventually. I also know, that on my worst day, I’m still a conscientious and caring physician.

I also firmly believe that my experience of dealing with depression has made me a better doctor; It has helped me understand the healthcare system from a patient’s perspective and also helped me empathize more deeply with patients (as another patient) and to be a more compassionate.

It has made me much more attuned to psychiatric symptoms in my patients (even when may not be aware of them themselves) and to develop a language that allows me to engage them in discussions about their mental health in a non-threatening way. Although I have a better understanding of how an illness like depression can color and skew patient perceptions of certain physical symptoms, I think I am also less likely to over-diagnose psychiatric illness in a patient who’s symptoms don’t easily fit into a neat medical model.

There. I’ve said  it. Whats your story?

Ronan Kavanagh is a rheumatologist who blogs at Dr. Ronan Kavanagh’s Blog.


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