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Why doctors' mental health should be a concern for us all

When medical students enter university, their mental health is no different from that of the rest of the population. By the end of their first year, however, it is significantly worse.

When medical students enter university, their mental health is no different from that of the rest of the population. By the end of their first year, however, it is significantly worse. Stress accumulates throughout their training and, for many, things do not improve. A new study demonstrates what a problem this has become – especially for the doctors involved.

Debbie Cohen and colleagues at Cardiff University carried out a survey of almost 2,000 British doctors at various stages of their career. Of these, 60 per cent had experienced mental illness (the figure is 82 per cent in England) but most had not sought help.

Even the doctors don’t see it coming. In the survey, most medical professionals who have never experienced mental health problems say that they would disclose any problem that arose. But attitudes change when it actually happens. “You don’t do what you think you would do,” Cohen says.

The figures differ according to stage of career. Trainees and junior doctors are less likely to admit to having a problem – perhaps unsurprisingly, given the perception that it may damage their future. Disclosure rates also differ by career track. Among GPs, 84 per cent say that they would disclose; 39 per cent do so. Trainees disclose at the same rate as GPs but are more aware that they won’t: only 62 per cent say that they would disclose a mental illness. Locums and specialist staff are the least deluded and the least open: they acknowledge the lowest likelihood of disclosure (60 per cent) and they follow through, with 38 per cent making a disclosure of an issue.

The reasons for not disclosing vary widely. There is certainly a lack of understanding about the support available. There are also concerns about being labelled and about confidentiality. Cohen and her colleagues are now designing an online tool to make disclosure easier. “We have considerable interest from all stakeholders and we aim for it to be disseminated widely across NHS organisations, deaneries and medical schools eventually,” she says.

Britain’s NHS reforms should make this an urgent priority, because the alternative is what the Cohen report calls “maladaptive coping strategies”. Research indicates that doctors learn these behaviours early on. The best known – because of its high prevalence even among trainee doctors – is alcohol and substance abuse, including misuse of prescription drugs. These coping strategies are not sustainable in the long term, leading to high levels of burnout and breakdown.

In many ways, much of these findings is not news. We have known for a long time that doctors have a higher rate of mental illness than the general population. We have not, however, considered the consequences. Some of the more alarming outcomes of having stressed and depressed doctors are pathological cynicism, an unwillingness to care for the chronically ill and decreased empathy. It is clear that no one benefits when doctors begin to go under.

Combing through the literature, one phrase stands out time and again: “particularly female doctors”. This group experiences a higher degree of anxiety than male doctors. Perhaps that is because, as a large Canadian study showed, female doctors are twice as likely to be depressed as their male counterparts. That becomes even more likely if they have children (no such relationship has been recorded for male colleagues who have children). Though more likely to disclose mental health problems, female doctors are less likely to turn to colleagues for help. The reasons are not uniform but reluctance to show weakness in the workplace, especially if there is an atmosphere of prejudice, is likely to play a significant role. Because of long shifts – often into the night – many have to endure journeys home in the dark, and feel vulnerable to attack. Once home, women suffer more, too, adjusting between children and work.

In the UK, the situation is about to get worse. The government’s assessment of the contract it has just imposed on junior doctors includes an admission that it will have an “indirect adverse effect on women”. This is justified as “a proportionate means of achieving a legitimate aim”.

Everything we know about doctors’ mental health indicates that the quality of care provision goes down as doctors get more stressed. The risk of suicide is higher than in many occupations (the rate among women doctors exceeds that of the general female population). It is also now clear that it won’t only be patients who die as a result. 

Michael Brooks holds a PhD in quantum physics. He writes a weekly science column for the New Statesman, and his most recent book is At the Edge of Uncertainty: 11 Discoveries Taking Science by Surprise.

This article first appeared in the 08 April 2016 issue of the New Statesman, The Tories at war

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Andy Burnham and Sadiq Khan are both slippery self-mythologisers – so why do we rate one more than the other?

Their obsessions with their childhoods have both become punchlines; but one of these jokes, it feels to me, is told with a lot more affection than the other.

Andy Burnham is a man whose policies and opinions seem to owe more to political expediency than they do to belief. He bangs on to the point of tedium about his own class, background and interests. As a result he’s widely seen as an unprincipled flip-flopper.

Sadiq Khan is a man whose policies and opinions seem to owe more to political expediency than they do to belief. He bangs on to the point of tedium about his own class, background and interests. As a result he’s the hugely popular mayor of London, the voice of those who’d be proud to think of themselves as the metropolitan liberal elite, and is even talked of as a possible future leader of the Labour party.

Oh, and also they were both born in 1970. So that’s a thing they have in common, too.

Why it is this approach to politics should have worked so much better for the mayor of London than the would-be mayor of Manchester is something I’ve been trying to work out for a while. There are definite parallels between Burnham’s attempts to present himself as a normal northern bloke who likes normal things like football, and Sadiq’s endless reminders that he’s a sarf London geezer whose dad drove a bus. They’ve both become punchlines; but one of these jokes, it feels to me, is told with a lot more affection than the other.

And yes, Burnham apparent tendency to switch sides, on everything from NHS privatisation to the 2015 welfare vote to the leadership of Jeremy Corbyn, has given him a reputation for slipperiness. But Sadiq’s core campaign pledge was to freeze London transport fares; everyone said it was nonsense, and true to form it was, and you’d be hard pressed to find an observer who thought this an atypical lapse on the mayor’s part. (Khan, too, has switched sides on the matter of Jeremy Corbyn.)

 And yet, he seems to get away with this, in a way that Burnham doesn’t. His low-level duplicity is factored in, and it’s hard to judge him for it because, well, it’s just what he’s like, isn’t it? For a long time, the Tory leadership’s line on London’s last mayor was “Boris is Boris”, meaning, look, we don’t trust him either, but what you gonna do? Well: Sadiq is Sadiq.

Even the names we refer to them by suggest that one of these two guys is viewed very differently from the other. I’ve instinctively slipped into referring to the mayor of London by his first name: he’s always Sadiq, not Khan, just as his predecessors were Boris and Ken. But, despite Eoin Clarke’s brief attempt to promote his 2015 leadership campaign with a twitter feed called “Labour Andy”, Burnham is still Burnham: formal, not familiar. 

I’ve a few theories to explain all this, though I’ve no idea which is correct. For a while I’ve assumed it’s about sincerity. When Sadiq Khan mentions his dad’s bus for the 257th time in a day, he does it with a wink to the audience, making a crack about the fact he won’t stop going on about it. That way, the message gets through to the punters at home who are only half listening, but the bored lobby hacks who’ve heard this routine two dozen times before feel they’re in the joke.

Burnham, it seems to me, lacks this lightness of touch: when he won’t stop banging on about the fact he grew up in the north, it feels uncomfortably like he means it. And to take yourself seriously in politics is sometimes to invite others to make jokes at your expense.

Then again, perhaps the problem is that Burnham isn’t quite sincere enough. Sadiq Khan genuinely is the son of a bus-driving immigrant: he may keep going on about it, but it is at least true. Burnham’s “just a northern lad” narrative is true, too, but excludes some crucial facts: that he went to Cambridge, and was working in Parliament aged 24. Perhaps that shouldn’t change how we interpret his story; but I fear, nonetheless, it does.

Maybe that’s not it, though: maybe I’m just another London media snob. Because Burnham did grow up at the disadvantaged end of the country, a region where, for too many people, chasing opportunities means leaving. The idea London is a city where the son of a bus driver can become mayor flatters our metropolitan self-image; the idea that a northerner who wants to build a career in politics has to head south at the earliest opportunity does the opposite. 

So if we roll our eyes when Burnham talks about the north, perhaps that reflects badly on us, not him: the opposite of northern chippiness is southern snobbery.

There’s one last possibility for why we may rate Sadiq Khan more highly than Andy Burnham: Sadiq Khan won. We can titter a little at the jokes and the fibs but he is, nonetheless, mayor of London. Andy Burnham is just the bloke who lost two Labour leadership campaigns.

At least – for now. In six weeks time, he’s highly likely to the first mayor of Greater Manchester. Slipperiness is not the worst quality in a mayor; and so much of the job will be about banging the drum for the city, and the region, that Burnham’s tendency to wear his northernness on his sleeve will be a positive boon.

Sadiq Khan’s stature has grown because the fact he became London’s mayor seems to say something, about the kind of city London is and the kind we want it to be. Perhaps, after May, Andy Burnham can do the same for the north – and the north can do the same for Andy Burnham.

Jonn Elledge edits the New Statesman's sister site CityMetric, and writes for the NS about subjects including politics, history and Daniel Hannan. You can find him on Twitter or Facebook.