Page last updated at 23:06 GMT, Saturday, 8 August 2009 00:06 UK

Medics avoid mental health help

Depressed man
Doctors have higher than average rates of depression

The vast majority of doctors would not seek medical help for mental health problems, a survey suggests.

Career worries, professional integrity and stigma were listed as the main reasons for doctors' reluctance to seek help for problems such as depression.

Medics are more likely to discuss mental health problems with family and friends, the survey of 2,500 doctors in Birmingham reported.

The researchers said such reluctance could put doctors and patients at risk.

The researchers said the anonymous survey, published in the journal Clinical Medicine, is the first of its kind outside the psychiatric profession.

It found only 13% of respondents would choose to disclose their illness to a GP or another health professional.

And when it comes to inpatient treatment, 79% would opt for treatment in either a private or distant facility, rather than be treated by local NHS services.


The responses suggested such decisions appear most often to be based around concerns that personal information would not be kept confidential and the effect that could have on a doctor's career.

They also found 41% of respondents would seek informal medical advice, but 8% would either self-medicate or opt for no treatment at all.

In all, 12.4% indicated that they had experienced a mental illness.

Dr Alfred White, consultant psychiatrist at Birmingham and Solihull Mental Health NHS Trust and one of the researchers, said the fact they had a 70% response rate from the initial 3,500 questionnaires suggested this was an important issue for doctors.

"Doctors who are reluctant to seek professional advice for mental health issues may be putting themselves, and possibly also their patients, at risk and we are concerned that there are a lack of options for doctors who feel they are mentally unwell.

It says a lot about stigma that people who are more enlightened about mental health, still see being open about their problems as a barrier to career progression
Paul Farmer, Mind

He added: "Doctors suffer higher levels for depression and substance misuse, as well as higher rates of suicide than the general population.

"The apparent lack of confidence in the current system protecting doctors' confidentiality may exacerbate these trends."

He called for better support for doctors with mental health problems.

Paul Farmer, chief executive of mental health charity Mind, said: "Many people are afraid to disclose their mental health problems in the workplace for fear that they will be seen as 'weak' or 'less capable' than others.

"It says a lot about stigma that people who are more enlightened about mental health, still see being open about their problems as a barrier to career progression.

"Doctors work long hours under extreme pressure, and it's important that they feel they can seek medical support when they need it, just like anyone else."

A spokeswoman for the British Medical Association said the findings backed up their own research, which suggested that as well as confidentiality, many worry that admitting to mental health problems could be a barrier to career progression.

"What we need is culture change to battle the stigma of mental illness.

"Doctors should feel free to seek help from the NHS rather than think they need to hide what they're going through."

A spokeswoman for mental health charity Rethink said: "If doctors themselves are unable to overcome the stigma surrounding mental illness then what hope is there for the rest of us.

"The fact that stigma remains strong among doctors - professionals who by definition should know that mental health problems can affect anyone at any time - shows just how entrenched the prejudice is."

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