It’s okay not to be okay.

I am British to a fault.

I have been ruminating on aspects of our character that we may be unaware of. My other half is an Aussie, and when we first got together we had numerous arguments based around the different connotations of the word “fine”. Myself, a Brit, would tell her that something was fine, and expect her to infer that it was anything but. She, in typical Aussie fashion, took everything at face value and then was unable to understand why I was miffed (another classic British understatement).

When she moved over here she commented on our typical British greetings “Hiya, you alright?” and how there was no acceptable response to that other than “Yeah fine thanks, you?” We are not asking after the other person’s well-being, and if someone were to deviate from the script it would be awkward to say the least.

These discrepancies can be amusing, but our idiosyncrasies sometimes inhibit our ability to let other people in. This can have devastating consequences, particularly in Medicine. In addition to the British avoidance of talking about feelings, people in Medicine are also reticent to admit what they perceive as weakness, and emotional responses and feelings often get bundled away and taken home, not aired and explored in a positive atmosphere. Mental Health is still not addressed as it should be, and we continue to perceive the demonstration of emotion as a sign of fragility.

When you work it every day, it is easy to forget how emotionally taxing our job is. We see people at their worst, both physically and emotionally, and the range of conditions we have to deal with on a daily basis can often be a complete mind-fuck. You go from treating 4-day-old babies with sepsis, to trauma calling a teenager who tried to commit suicide, to dealing with the aftermath of a neglect case. There is often no time to think about it, no time to dissect your feelings about a case, and definitely no time to deal with the emotions that either of those actions would inevitably stir. You have to develop a way of coping that allows you to move on to the next patient, the next parent, and the next disaster. It is a fine balance. We traditionally shut off the parts of ourselves that struggle to process the things that we see, and we notice ourselves become less affected by our daily exposures. But this is not healthy, and it only takes a small thing to tip the balance.

Between 10-20% of doctors become clinically depressed at some point in their careers, and there is a higher rate of suicide than in the general population; particularly in the acute specialties, where there is a “stiff upper lip” attitude and a tendency to push forward in the face of signs that we are perhaps not as okay as we seem.

This has repercussions not just for us as physicians, but also for the way that we treat our patients. Up to 50% of Emergency Medicine trainees resign prior to completion of their training. As a specialty we are seeing the highest rates of burnout in the history of the healthcare system. EDs are becoming like warzones, and our already fragile mental health is about to snap. The higher rates of burnout correlate with self-reported depression rates of up to 40%, with associated lack of empathy and altruism, and increased rates of errors. Over the last few months, I have actively felt myself becoming more cynical, and less motivated to help people. A parent books in with their sick child and I am annoyed that they are there. The very reason that I trained to do this job has become a source of irritation.

This façade spills over into our home lives too. I am so used to shutting off my feelings about things that happen at work, that I attempt to do the same with things that happen at home. Over recent months I have been endeavouring to insulate myself from my feelings about both issues at home and difficult cases at work. And my mind simply doesn’t have the capacity.

I have recently considered going to a counsellor to help me unpack all the emotions I carry around with me, both from my personal and professional life. It has taken an almost daily struggle to keep those emotions under the surface to illustrate to me how important it is to deal with your responses to situations instead of packing them away, and using the traditional dark humour to cover them up. I have been less than keen to address these issues, due to both an inbuilt, British avoidance of talking about “feelings”, coupled with a desire not to seem nauseatingly American by attending therapy; but also due to the inescapable concern that it makes me a weaker person. That other people are managing, and by my admission I am not. That this somehow makes me a lesser doctor, a lesser person.

Acknowledging emotions is not a sign of weakness. Unpacking your response to a patient, or a situation, or your relationship, is the healthy way to deal with it and move forward. We need to stop prioritising relentless, emotionless work ethic above the ability to be normal, functional, people. We need to allow ourselves to be human.

Some of this needs to stem from a revision of NHS culture, for the establishment to recognise that lack of debrief, lack of NHS counselling, lack of self-care for our emotional selves is damaging to our productivity as a workforce, but most of it can stem from us, as individuals. If we are affected by something, take the time to feel it. Discuss it, dissect it, and get different perspectives on situations. Maybe not at the time, but we should prioritise debrief, prioritise acknowledgement of an emotional response. Allow ourselves to care.

We need to recognise, as individuals, that we are not built to carry all our stresses around with us. That showing compassion towards our patients begins with showing compassion towards ourselves, that when you are saturated by stress and emotional baggage you lack the capacity to truly help the patients that put their trust in you. We need to understand that overexertion and dependence on 3 coffees to get through the day is something to be avoided, not romanticised. That working hard doesn’t have to mean running yourself into the ground, and that taking care of our mental health is paramount to being empathetic, successful physicians.

2 thoughts on “It’s okay not to be okay.”

  1. Love your blog as always. And I completely agree – both with the British squeamishness at acknowledging emotions and the need to address them (do you remember our discussion at school about locking feelings in a nearly-exploding box vs neat filing cabinet?! Neither very healthy in retrospect!). From experience, therapy is definitely worth it even if a bit cringe!

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  2. A very interesting post, with good points. One of the reasons I abandoned studying medicine is because I don’t think my mental health could withstand it. I’m bipolar and have been advised against large stresses in my life (easier said than done!). I admire what you’re doing. Do take care of yourself and your own mental health.

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