It is a miracle that more doctors have not succumbed to substance use disorder at some point in their training or career. It is a fact that many have. The number of doctors and other healthcare providers who have struggled with substance-related issues is probably far greater than we can imagine. This is because of a culture of secrecy and implied threats. Doctors who need help think there is nowhere to turn.
We are human beings with a “yes” problem. Maybe, it develops during training. Or, possibly, medical schools select for it. Saying yes too often and too easily can have serious health consequences. Doctors tend to take on a huge burden of responsibilities. It can be too much for any one person to handle.
Stress builds to a breaking point. There is no end to the overload of work and responsibility. Many doctors believe they are superhuman in their ability to take on responsibility and handle stress. They are not.
Then, there is the stress that builds from taking on the emotional pain of helping patients. Any human being put in the position of sitting with another human being who is suffering will take on some of that suffering. It is hard to decompress and let go.
Doctors are afraid to get help for themselves. They fear showing weakness. They fear risking their license, job or disability insurance. The pressure to keep producing continues. Mortgages, loan payments, bills, raising a family, the high cost of maintaining a medical license. It can feel like there is no escape.
Many doctors turn to alcohol or drugs. If you have used drugs to help relieve the pressure of life and work, you may feel like a failure, but it is far better than the alternative. There is also a suicide epidemic in the medical community. Doctors are jumping from buildings and bridges. They die by their own hand because they see no other way out.
The problem is that drug use also eventually leads to death. It has been called suicide on an installment plan. The time to ask for help is now. Please, get help before it is too late.
Opioids are often the drug of choice. They kill pain. This is what they do best. It turns out that opioids work just as well for emotional pain as physical pain. Yet, opioid use comes at a price. That price is often death.
Fortunately, there is help. We, as doctors, can help each other. Many of us have chosen to become certified and experienced in providing medication-assisted treatment (MAT). This is generally known as suboxone treatment. The success rate of MAT is high. Much higher than traditional abstinence-based treatment programs. Doctors who practice MAT should feel comfortable seeing their colleagues as patients.
We have a shortage of doctors in this country, and we cannot afford to lose more to drug addiction. It is time for us to help each other. I urge those of us who treat addiction to make it clear that we are here to help our peers. We can listen, talk, advise and provide medical care. Together, we can help these talented doctors to get their lives back and find joy again in helping their patients to heal.
Mark Leeds is a family physician and can be reached at his self-titled site, DrLeeds.com.
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