Doctors often avoid mental health care because they think they'll lose their medical licenses

Female nurse looking stressed
State licensing application questions are a barrier for physicians to seek mental health care. (Getty/gpointstudio)

Add a new study to the evidence that worries about their medical license keep many physicians from seeking treatment for mental health issues.

The study, published today in Mayo Clinic Proceedings, said that despite growing burnout, many physicians avoid mental health treatment because of concern for their licenses.

Nearly 40% of the 5,829 doctors surveyed said they would be reluctant to seek formal medical care to treat a mental health condition because of concerns about repercussions to their medical license, researchers from the Mayo Clinic found.

Physicians were more likely to seek help in states where the initial license application and renewal asked only about current impairment from a mental health condition or did not ask mental health questions at all, the researchers said. However, the licensing requirements in two-thirds of states include questions about past mental health treatments or diagnoses, with the implication that they may limit a doctor’s right to practice medicine.

That presents a barrier at a time when many doctors face problems with psychological distress. “Clearly, in some states, the questions physicians are required to answer to obtain or renew their license are keeping them from seeking the help they need to recover from burnout and other emotional or mental health issues,” study co-author Liselote Dyrbye, M.D., of the Mayo Clinic said in an announcement

Researchers looked at licensing requirements in all 50 states and the District of Columbia and renewal applications from 48 states. They also surveyed physicians across the country about their attitudes about seeking mental health care.

A survey of female physicians earlier this year found that a fear of stigma as well as possible sanction by state licensing boards keep many doctors from revealing mental health issues. Another study this year concurred that state medical licensing boards, which ask more questions about doctors’ mental health than physical health that could lead to impairment, may promote stigma and keep physicians from seeking help. The studies are disturbing in that physicians have high rates of suicide and depression.