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How to Recognize, Help Physician Colleague Emotional Distress

Although it may be hard for us to admit, physicians face the same types of mental health conditions as our patients, including depression. While studies show that male physicians have same rate of depression as the general population at around 12-13%, nearly 20% of female physicians experience depression, with even higher rates of up to 30% among medical students and residents. Further, depressed doctors have higher rates of suicide than the average population, with a relative risk of 1.1-3.4 for men and 2.5-5.7 for women. It is important for physicians to understand this risk, not only for our ourselves, but to help identify and support colleagues that may be experiencing depression.

Be on the lookout for signs of physician distress

According to psychologist Steven Cohen PsyD, depression in physicians may be difficult to detect, because depressed doctors often present a mask to the world that everything is ‘ok.’ Friends and colleagues must be attuned to signs of physician distress, which may be subtle. “Learning to identify these signs is the first step in intervention,” says Cohen.

One of the most common signs of emotional distress is a change in typical pattern of behavior. “For example, a physician who is usually cheerful suddenly becomes irritable and cranky; one who is always on time is now suddenly rushed and last minute, or someone who is known to be very organized is now constantly misplacing things,” says Cohen.

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