Almost 30% of medical students suffer from depression, and 10% have suicidal thoughts. In the wake of the COVID-19 pandemic, physicians are also speaking out about systemic burnout and the overall mental health pitfalls facing doctors today. Each year, 300-400 physicians die by suicide.
However, the stigma surrounding mental illness in the medical community is still challenging to combat, leaving many struggling in silence.
There is hope; some physicians and organizations have bravely stepped into the spotlight with the common goal of making mental healthcare accessible and shame-free.
MDlinx is highlighting these game-changers as part of our Celebrity MD series. Our editors and medical advisory board worked together to identify both individuals and non-profits who are changing the way healthcare workers are treated when they themselves need care.
These physicians and organizations are just a few who are helping to inspire, educate, create safe spaces, and influence leadership and legislation in order to help all those working in healthcare feel confident in bettering their mental health.
Jake Goodman, MD, MBA
Jake Goodman, MD, MBA, first started his highly successful social media account to inspire people to go into medicine and the healthcare industry. His account quickly became a safe haven for physicians struggling with mental health challenges—a place they can be served a dose of comradery and compassion.
Now with more than two million followers on his social account, TEDx talks, and advocacy work, Goodman is becoming a major face of mental health awareness in the healthcare system.
Goodman had his own struggles with anxiety and mental health when he was in medical school, and at first, he only used his platform to talk about mental health advocacy. He never mentioned his own experience. But as his personal struggles deepened, he decided to seek help for himself. As he started to feel better, he realized he needed to help others struggling as well.Related: A powerful conversation about mental health with Dr. Jake Goodman
“I have an opportunity to let millions of people know that I am a doctor who treats mental illness, and I have experienced a mental illness, and I am seeking help. And that's a strength, that's not a weakness.”
Goodman first posted about his mental health journey in the fall of 2021, and it resonated widely with many other people.
“It was incredibly therapeutic to just open myself up to the world and just say, ‘Look, this is who I am. I am a doctor, but I also struggle with mental health. And if you are out there struggling with mental health, you're not alone in what you're experiencing.’”
"As a doctor who treats mental health, I was struggling with mental health, and I needed help. And it really turned my life around. I started to feel so much better. "
— Jake Goodman, MD, MBA
Goodman hopes that by sharing his story and creating a conversation, he can impact the larger systemic issue and make medical training more “humane.”
“Resident doctors and medical students will continue to suffer from mental health issues at staggering rates, and patient care will continue to be suboptimal because if doctors are suffering and sleep-deprived, they can't provide the quality care that they should be able to and that they can do.”
IMPACT in Healthcare
IMPACT in Healthcare is moving the needle on prioritizing care for healthcare workers. The nonprofit was, in part, founded on the principle that when we treat healthcare workers better, patient care improves. Through advocacy at the state and national level, Impact in Healthcare aims to improve the overall medical system, including helping physicians and other healthcare workers to seek mental health care without reprisal.
IMPACT in Healthcare is fighting for healthcare workers. The interdisciplinary non-profit aims to unite physicians and healthcare workers to amplify their voices. Concerns like staffing ratios, workplace violence, debt management, fair compensation, and mental healthcare are addressed, and solutions are found.
MDlinx spoke with Abby Donley, RN-BSN, Executive Director of Impact in Healthcare, about the struggles physicians face unfairly when it comes to seeking out mental health treatment in particular. Donley pointed out that when physicians are feeling their best, they provide better treatment to their patients. Physician care and patient care are intrinsically connected. She also emphasized that the medical institution has an obligation to protect healthcare workers from moral injury, which means making physicians work in a way that violates their moral code. An example of this could be short staffing.
"Doctors are also patients sometimes."
— Abby Donley, Executive Director
IMPACT in Healthcare's methods include letter-writing campaigns to state lawmakers, shedding light on healthcare workers' difficulties. The organization also plans to hold an advocacy day in Washington, D.C., in the fall.
Doug Sirutis, MD, MPH, MS
Doug Sirutis, MD, struggled during his first semester of medical school with depression and even found himself considering quitting his program. The stress and sleep deprivation he was experiencing were hard to cope with, forcing him to question the medical establishment as a whole and medical education leadership. He now uses his voice to share his perspective and encourages medical students to find programs that give them a voice and support.
Doug Sirutis, MD, MPH, MS, was called to medicine to help serve others. He switched careers and prepped his application for two years before attending medical school. However, his first semester was particularly difficult, and he suffered from depression and thought about dropping out. He shared his thoughts with other program members and found many of his cohorts were also suffering.
“We're all freaking miserable. And that's just kind of how the jokes roll between people. When you start coping with this nihilistically and joking with such pessimistic humor. And that's very typical in the medical field, as well,” he says.
"It is simply unethical what we continue to force upon trainees knowing the rates of mental illness, suicidal ideation, and completed suicide within our field."
— Doug Sirutis, MD
That’s when Sirutis started to question the greater medical training establishment. His answer to this? Ask leadership to find solutions. He’s drafted emails to medical school deans bringing to their attention the issues students face, like exhaustion and the lack of work-life balance. He also decided to continue his medical education in a program that gives residents more of a voice and values work-life balance.
“You can't be yourself when you're that exhausted. You can't live your life when you're that exhausted. And it just hit me as this is so wrong, so wrong.”
Laura Vater, MD, MPH
Laura Vater, MD, MPH, struggled to get through her medical training and found herself just going through the “motions.” Now, she is speaking out in big ways about the treatment of medical students, from giving commencement speeches to standing on the TEDx stage. Vater has dedicated time and energy to speaking out against the massive hurdles medical students face, and she hopes to change the system as a whole.
Vater journals a lot about her thoughts and experiences, including her struggles as a medical student. When Vater began her intern year, she had a small child at home and was facing a massive mental health crisis as well, trying to find time to rest and revive herself. “I experienced all of these things that I didn't anticipate to experience, especially when I was sleep-deprived, awake for 30 hours or more. I started having thoughts that scared me.”
"I do think that there is power in sharing, even though it's very vulnerable, because it allows another person to know that they're not alone."
— Laura B. Vater, MD, MPH
Slowly, Vatar began to question if the sleep deprivation and lack of well-being she was facing also impacted others. She started to pose questions online if anyone else was experiencing these fundamental hardships, and others wrote back that they were indeed struggling. However, afraid of repercussions, Vatar didn’t seek out professional mental health treatment until she secured an attending position.
“I just carried this internal fear that if I sought it out after going through all this training, it would mean that I couldn't actually get a job.”
She doesn't want others to have to wait that long to seek treatment out of fear that there will be professional repercussions. Now, Vatar is using her voice loudly so others don’t suffer. She connects with her more than 100,000 Instagram followers regularly, bringing awareness to the struggles physicians face. For example, Vater knows all too well the damage sleep deprivation can have on someone’s mental health, and she is striving to let students know they aren’t failing if they can’t cope with the rigorous schedules they face.
“It's a systemic issue, and it's a product of the environment we find ourselves in. And I think it's really important for anyone in medical training or beyond in medical practice to realize that this is not a personal failure; this is a systems failure.”
Future Frontline is a UK-based organization that was founded by two medical students during the COVID-19 pandemic. Now, the organization aims to disrupt the inequalities medical students face, as well as issues all medical workers face, including access to mental healthcare.
During the COVID-19 pandemic, It was a difficult time for medical students in the UK; the pandemic lockdowns stripped them of many learning tools and left many wondering what would happen next.
"We need more free resources, we need more students speaking to future students. "
— Leah Brooks, Chief Operating Officer
Future Frontline stepped up to offer virtual free learning tools to help medical students stay connected to their education. Using their new-found platform and social media, Future Frontline is helping magnify the conversation around physician burnout, the burden students face, and the overall mental load physicians carry daily. To help physicians and healthcare workers cope with these mental health issues, Future Frontline offers resources like panel discussions around mental health.