Physicians with anxiety shouldn’t suffer in silence


I thought about you, the patient that I’m about to perform surgery on, all night last night and because I doubted myself, I took clonazepam to calm the anxiety so I could sleep.  Today I’ve taken 10 mg of propranolol and some Kava, a natural supplement known to decrease anxiety.

As I start the surgery, the propranolol coursing through my veins blocking the sympathetic nervous system, I fear it will come.  The trembling hands and the subsequent panic attack.  The fear of my fellow professionals looking on as I completely melt down and become unable to finish the procedure because my hands shake uncontrollably.  And when this happens the repercussions that follow will end the reason that I exist: the state medical board stripping my license, the complete loss of income and the loss of my identity as a medical professional.

However, the anxiety attack never comes, and I’ll live to see another day.  It’s now time to agonize about the next patient, the next procedure and with it the next possible paralyzing anxiety attack.  But I’m a medical professional, and I’m a man and, as such, I suffer for the most part in silence.

In the medical field, we are supposed to be machines, not humans.  We are supposed to control, own and eradicate disease, not suffer with it.  And when it comes to mental disease, well that’s just blasphemy in the medical world.  I personally know of several medical providers including myself who suffer from anxiety, depression and other mental disorders that have long been stigmatized.

Case in point on the stigma: I’m writing this article anonymously.  Looking on various forums, I’ve found hundreds more who suffer.  I’ve been to psychiatrists, psychologists, cognitive behavioral therapists and Buddhist meditation classes.  I take propranolol during work to control the symptoms, and I take the occasional clonazepam to indulge in a mental vacation from all the worry.  I read countless books on how to cultivate a peaceful mind and minimize stress.  I’ve tried about every natural supplement known to man so as to minimize the use of pharmaceuticals.

Mental disease, most notably anxiety, is an ongoing, never-ending and tiring battle.  It’s a battle that I’m winning, but it will likely never be won for good.  There will be days that I lose, but weeks and months that I do and will continue to win.

I know beyond any reasonable doubt that this article will resonate with some of you.  You’ll read it in private and smile to yourself just knowing that someone else suffers in the same way that you do. But like me, the short relief that this article might provide will be followed by the realization that you can’t share the happiness of that relief, lest you compromise the integrity of your career and the respect of your colleagues.  You will go back to the realization that you must suffer in silence.  Others of you will share it to show others just how stressful the medical profession can be, though you yourself may not be so affected.

Mental health care, as a whole, needs a complete overhaul.  The importance of it cannot be overstated.  Just perform a Google Adwords search of the terms “anxiety” and “depression” and the millions of searches will leave you with an appreciation of how much this gap in medicine needs to be filled.  But how can we expect to appreciate the gravity of this situation if we can’t talk about our own struggles as doctors, physician assistants, nurses, and other healthcare professionals?  When I treat a fellow medical colleague, and I look at their past medical history and current medications, I immediately feel a sense of relief when I see an SSRI, a benzo or other information indicating a history of a mental disorder.  It reminds me that I’m not alone.

The more of us that get out there and say “I won’t suffer in silence,” the more of us that will come out of the fringes and say “you too.”  Unfortunately up until now, the stigma has been winning the battle, and we sit silently on the sidelines.  My hope with this article is simple: I hope to stimulate a discussion.  Maybe, slowly this stigma can be overcome through dialogue and understanding.  Without this, how can we as wounded healers be expected to heal others to the best of our capabilities?

The author is an anonymous physician.

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