Mental health in doctors and medical practitioners

Mental health is a serious issue no matter which industry you happen to work in. Considering the fact that the South African healthcare industry faces a chronic shortage of doctors and specialists, the country’s stressed and overloaded medical professionals are at greater risk of burnout that puts both themselves and their patients in danger.

Doctors are 2.5 times more likely to commit suicide than the general population, while physician burnout is a leading cause of medical error, past president of the South African Society of Psychiatrists (SASOP) Professor Bernard Jansen van Rensburg said.

It is disturbing  that healthcare professionals are more often than not also plagued by mental illnesses issues.  Depression, burnout and suicide occur at higher rates amongst medical professionals than in many other fields.

The need to remove stigma from mental health conditions, particularly amongst medical professionals themselves, is critical in curbing the problem. Those in the medical profession need to know that a mental health condition not dealt with is more likely to have a long-term negative effect to their practice and professional reputation, and that it’s best to rather ask for help early in their career.

There is also a responsibility at an organisational level for management in the healthcare system to acknowledge the existence of the problem, to develop targeted interventions and to promote resilience and self-care amongst their staff.

We take a look at 5 common health and wellness challenges that medical professionals can face.

Chronic Stress

Medical students, residents and physicians are constantly placed under ever-increasing demanding schedules and procedural perfection. In these circumstances it becomes  imperative that they develop skills for effectively coping with extreme stress. When one is stressed, it can have a negative impact on concentration, memory, and sleep patterns, which may ultimately lead to more serious issues such as anxiety, depression and burnout down the line.

Most people feel prolonged discomfort or know when they are experiencing extreme stress. However, it can take  a while for medical professionals to fully acknowledge these levels of stress as a serious obstacle to perform at their best. Should you, or anyone you know, experience any of the following issues, you should consider getting help:

  • Extreme irritability combined with low self-esteem and/or loss of sexual desire
  • Burnout – emotional exhaustion, detachment or lack of empathy with patients
  • Gastrointestinal issues such as digestive problems or changes in appetite
  • Sleep disorders
  • Inability or difficulty to concentrate, feeling helpless, nervousness
  • A reduced sense of job satisfaction or professional achievement.
  • Increased misuse or dependence of substances such as alcohol, prescribed medicine or drugs

Sleep Disorders

Given the chaotic schedules and potential stress triggers, it comes as no surprise that many medical professionals may struggle getting a good night’s sleep. It’s been suggested that there is a strong correlation between sleep disorders and mental health issues, including mood and anxiety disorders.

The signs of sleeping disorders vary greatly from person-to-person, but some common indicators to look for include:

  • Difficulty to fall asleep
  • Continuation issues: Waking up several times throughout the night or waking up earlier than expected etc.
  • Unavoidable movement
  • Unexpected sleep during the day
  • Irritability and lack of concentration due to lack of sleep

Substance Abuse

For all the available informative programs in this day and age, there’s still a huge stigma attached to mental health. Many medical professionals struggle to acknowledge that they cannot cope without professional help. This may cause reluctance to approach their professional colleagues for help and rather choosing to self-medicate for symptoms such as insomnia, anxiety or depression. It’s unfortunate that some individuals slip into dangerous coping mechanisms such as alcohol and drugs, and isolate themselves form those who can support them such as family, friends and their professional community.

While certain medications can be prescribed for the treatment of depression and anxiety, these may only help in the short-term. If not used correctly medications such as benzodiazepines and amphetamines or dextroamphetamines can have serious long-term side effects.

Whether it’s substance-related or not, addiction creates distinct signs that, if left unaddressed, can quickly start to cause negative impacts on work and relationships.

  • Lack of control and Inability to focus
  • Decreased social interaction by abandoning commitments and ignoring relationships
  • Ignoring risk factors and developing poor spending habits
  • Inability to quit the bad habit of abuse
  • Withdrawal symptoms
  • Hangovers


Medical students, nurses and professionals face many unique pressures. More emphasis should be put on medical professionals  realising their limitations and recognising their humanity and fallibility.

If their own mental health is compromised in some way, these issues can take a serious toll, and if they are not dealt with, depression can evolve into more serious issues.

Just like many other mental health issues, signs of depression vary by individual, and may come and go with the presence of certain triggers.

  • Sad and melancholy mood for most of the day and nearly every day
  • Lack of interest, especially in activities or subjects that once brought great joy and happiness
  • Weight loss or decrease in appetite, especially when not dieting or trying to lose weight
  • Loss of energy or overall fatigue daily
  • Slowed physical movement observable by others
  • Reduced ability to think, concentrate, or remember things
  • Regular thoughts of death or suicide, with or without a plan


Suicide is not a mental illness in itself, but a serious potential consequence of treatable mental disorders that is left unattended.

Suicidal thoughts often stem from mental health issues and can be addressed early if recognized. The medical industry face enormous pressure daily, making it a necessity for this community to receive targeted and ongoing support.

It’s not that easy to identify warning signs  with someone contemplating suicide and can very easily go completely unnoticed.

  • Excessive sadness or moodiness
  • Thinking, talking and threatening about suicide
  • Hopelessness about the future
  • Dangerous and self-harmful behaviour
  • Sudden calmness after a period of severe depression could indicate a decision about suicide
  • Withdrawal by choosing to be alone
  • Recent trauma or life crisis
  • Making preparations and saying goodbyes

It’s time to end the stigma surrounding mental health. Depression, anxiety, sleep disorders and substance misuse can be treated like we would any other disease.

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    2020-11-27T10:39:37+02:00November 27th, 2020|Blog|