HealthDay News—Wary of the stigma of a mental health diagnosis and its toll on their careers, physicians often avoid getting help for depression and other mental illnesses, according to a report published online September 15 in General Hospital Psychiatry.

Researchers surveyed a convenience sample of female physicians to assess mental health history and treatment, perceptions of stigma, opinions about state licensing questions on mental health, and personal experiences with reporting. An anonymous survey ran from February to April 2016. The researchers posed 20 quantitative questions and 4 open-ended questions about treatment and reporting. They received responses from 2106 physicians from all 50 states and the District of Columbia.

The researchers found that 1 in 3 women said she had been diagnosed with a mental health condition at some point since medical school. But only 6% of those who were ever diagnosed or treated for a mental condition reported that information to the state. Nearly half of those surveyed thought they met the definition for mental illness at some point in their careers, but didn’t seek treatment. 

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Many survey respondents said they felt they could persevere on their own or didn’t have time to seek care. However, when researchers examined all of the reasons for not seeking care, more than two-thirds were stigma-related. Many doctors said getting diagnosed would be embarrassing or shameful, or they believed they would be judged by others, deemed incompetent, or have their privacy and autonomy violated.

“This study emphasizes the critical role of stigma in deterring treatment for physicians affected by mental illness. The data also raise serious concerns about how questions on medical licensing applications and physician beliefs about the negative consequences of reporting may contribute to this stigma and reluctance in help-seeking,” the authors write. “States need to identify a consistent set of questions about physician impairment which identify high-risk physicians and then provide them with supportive care in a safe and non-punitive way.”

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Gold KJ, Andrew LB, Goldman EB, Schwenk TL. “I would never want to have a mental health diagnosis on my record”: A survey of female physicians on mental health diagnosis, treatment, and reporting. Gen Hosp Psychiat. 2016 Sep 15. doi: 10.1016/j.genhosppsych.2016.09.004. [Epub ahead of print]