Doctor standing in hospital corridor clutching face stressed

Young doctors at high-risk of mental health problems

Mental health issues and suicide rates of our young doctors in Australia are now at an all-time high.

There’s a number of reasons contributing to this, including being overworked and worried about making clinical errors.

According to findings by the Australian Medical Association, 68% of NSW doctors-in-training worry about their personal health, due to hours worked. 89% are not paid for all unrostered overtime and almost all doctors (97%) work more than the standard 38 hours per week.

Doctors, however, who aren’t getting the support they need, are reluctant to come forward for fear of losing their medical licenses.

Professor Brad Frankum, AMA’s president, says it can put doctors in a tricky situation – needing help, but scared of losing everything they’ve worked for.

"If a doctor discloses to their treating [doctor] that they have drug addiction problems or mental health problems, then it’s mandatory for that treating doctor to report that to the Australian Health Practitioner Regulation Agency (AHPRA). Once that report happens, an investigation needs to take place,” Frankum explained.

But as more doctors lose their lives to self-harm, there are calls for changes to fix the current system. In five months, NSW reported suicides of three young doctors.

The pressure for today’s junior doctors

It’s not a lack of resilience that leads to doctors having suicidal thoughts, according to Dr. Genevieve Douglas in a recent article. Rather, it’s the way junior doctors are treated.

‘We’re not talking about a couple of years of hardship and a few long shifts. It takes around 15 years from the start of your training to become a specialist doctor. In that time, you deal with sick people, traumatic scenarios and grim conversations.’

To add fuel to the fire, there’s additional stressors of the hospital system, difficult training pathways, and the ‘head down, shut up’ culture. This is especially hard for junior doctors because the workload is intense – the hours, emergencies, paperwork, discharge meetings and summaries, combined with the lack of guidance from senior specialists. Budgets continue to be cut leaving less staff treating more patients. 

Add to this all the personal responsibilities like maintaining a relationship or raising kids. Emotional reserves to care for others is non-existent due to physical exhaustion and ‘compassion fatigue.’ The worst part of this is not being able to ask for help, at least the type of professional support that won’t affect future career prospects.

Junior doctors, and all specialists for that matter, need to have access to greater support. This requires a multi-system approach. Douglas suggests a nation-wide review of training processes, extended contracts, and reshaping the hospital culture – including administrative and nursing staff, too.