Fear keeps many doctors from revealing mental health issues

The title of a new survey of female physicians on mental health diagnosis, treatment and reporting pretty much says it all: “I would never want to have a mental health diagnosis on my record.”

A fear of stigma or sanction by state licensing boards is keeping many doctors from revealing mental health issues, according to the study, which was published in General Hospital Psychiatry. It’s ironic that at a time when doctors are encouraging their patients to talk about depression, anxiety and other mental health issues, physicians themselves may be less likely to seek help for similar problems, according to an announcement of the findings.

The study, conducted by researchers at the University of Michigan Health System, surveyed more than 2,100 women doctors across the country via a closed Facebook group. The anonymous, 24-question survey asked about mental health history and treatment, perceptions of stigma, opinions about state licensing questions on mental health and personal experiences with reporting. Almost 50 percent of respondents, most between the ages of 30 and 59, said they believed they had met the criteria for a mental illness at some time during their career but had not sought treatment. Two-thirds reported that fear of stigma kept them quiet.

The study is disturbing in that physicians have high rates of suicide and depression. Key reasons for physicians avoiding care included a belief they could manage independently, limited time, fear of reporting to a medical licensing board and the belief that diagnosis was embarrassing or shameful, according to the study. Only 6 percent of physicians with a formal diagnosis or treatment of mental illness had disclosed that information to their state, even though most state medical boards require disclosure of a mental health diagnosis on licensing applications.

"There has always been a stigma and a fear around mental illness, and that's what's reflected in many state licensing board questionnaires," lead researcher Katherine Gold, M.D., of the university’s medical school and a member of its depression center, said in the announcement. "There's a huge discrepancy between what states ask about physical conditions--such as whether those conditions affect their ability to practice--and what they ask about mental conditions, where the impact on their abilities is not asked about."

More research is needed on this issue, to reduce stigma among physicians and to help physicians feel safe seeking care, Gold said. And, state licensing standards should be examined to ensure they focus on medical conditions which currently affect patient care, rather than requiring disclosure of old, mild or stable and well-controlled problems, she said.