COVID led to a mental health crisis. The physician shortage is making it worse.

By Jules Murtha | Medically reviewed by Amanda Zeglis, DO, MBA
Published June 27, 2022

Key Takeaways

  • Symptoms of anxiety and depression affect two out of five adults, and one-third of high school students report feeling sadness and hopelessness, resulting in a national mental health crisis.

  • Nearly 45% of individuals living in the US are dealing with a shortage of mental health professionals in their area.

  • Doctors who are struggling to cope with the effects of COVID-19 can enhance their well-being by acknowledging their struggle, alongside sharing support resources with colleagues.

In February 2022, congress passed the Dr. Lorna Breen Health Care Provider Protection Act. Named after Lorna Breen, a Manhattan-based physician who died by suicide in April 2020, the legislation aims to support HCPs by encouraging them to prioritize their mental health and offering evidence-based methods to do so.[]

Breen’s tragic loss prefaced a chapter of hardship for clinicians across the country who, on top of working the frontlines of the COVID-19 pandemic, are faced with a physician shortage and a mental health crisis to boot.

This legislation is one way that physicians feeling the weight of this dynamic can begin to recognize these challenges and take advantage of available support.

COVID’s effect on mental health in the US

Mental health issues present major challenges to many individuals in the US. Even before COVID struck the population, anxiety and depression rates were steadily rising. The pandemic unfortunately magnified this issue.

A statement issued by the White House states that two in five adults suffer from symptoms of anxiety and depression.[] Black and Brown communities tend to be hit hardest by these conditions, as they often go undertreated compared with other racial groups.

Adults aren’t the only ones undergoing what the statement refers to as a “national mental health crisis,” either.

In 2019, rates of sadness and hopelessness among high school students rose 40% from 2009, amounting to one-third of the student body who are affected. In that time, emergency room visits due to attempted suicides in adolescent girls also jumped 51%.

These statistics point to a major problem that HCPs must shoulder—and there’s hardly enough help to go around.

Physician shortage taking a toll on everyone

The physician shortage—an active problem since before the emergence of COVID—is only making matters worse.

According to an article published by JAMA, 149 million people living in the US are dealing with a shortage of mental health professionals in their area.[] In other words, close to 45% of the population is struggling to access the care they need. As a result, over 70% of primary care physicians have provided increased mental health support to patients.

The US needs approximately 7,500 more mental health professionals to meet the demands for care. This number appears Herculean compared with the 6,970 additional mental HCPs needed in 2019 to effectively serve a population of 4.3 million less people.

This all falls on physicians as burnout becomes increasingly prevalent.

In May 2022, the US Department of Health & Human Services published an article summarizing a statement issued by Surgeon General Vivek Murthy, MD, MBA, that addressed the uptick in physician burnout and consequential resignations.[]

As much as 54% of physicians and nurses and 60% of residents and medical students (“crisis” levels, according to the article) have experienced burnout. As a result, over half of public health workers report feeling symptoms of depression, anxiety, or PTSD.

General Murthy spoke to all that’s at stake because of this challenge.

"COVID-19 has been a uniquely traumatic experience for the health workforce and for their families, pushing them past their breaking point."

Surgeon General Vivek Murthy, MD, MBA

“Now, we owe them a debt of gratitude and action. And if we fail to act, we will place our nation’s health at risk.”

Navigating the ‘shadow pandemic’

The physician shortage and national mental health crisis have converged to create what seems like a crisis of its own—and you’re likely feeling the weight of it.

Eileen Barrett, MD, MPH, an internal medicine hospitalist in New Mexico and an AMA-Satcher Health Leadership Institute Medical Justice in Advocacy fellow, called what HCPs are going through a “shadow pandemic.”[]

“Our health care workers are really enduring a lot,” Barrett told the AMA.

"Culturally in medicine it is often hard for us to take care of each other and also to take care of ourselves."

Eileen Barrett, MD, MPH

Changing the work culture of medicine requires physicians to be real about what they’re going through. Barrett suggested talking about what may be causing you professional distress with colleagues, and allowing yourself to be vulnerable when times get tough.

Expressing gratitude to fellow HCPs is another way to address the difficulties presented by the mental health crisis, according to Barrett.

Finally, sharing support resources with fellow physicians, and acquiring tips to maintain your well-being from those who know your struggle, may also be fruitful.

What this means for you

The COVID-19 pandemic exacerbated an existing US mental health crisis. Nearly 45% of US residents live in areas where mental health professionals are scarce, leading them to seek such treatment from primary care physicians. Meanwhile, physicians are at a notably higher risk of suicide compared with the general population. To cope with the stress of these times, acknowledge your struggle, open up to colleagues, and share support resources. Talk about what isn’t working, and seek tips from peers to manage your well-being.

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