May is Mental Health Awareness Month. It's been designated as such since 1949 by Mental Health America. The overall goal has been to convey that mental health is something that everybody in America should care about.
Each year there is a theme. This year, it’s “Risky Business.” The focus is on risk factors for mental health such as: risky sex, drug misuse, internet addiction, excessive spending and even worrisome exercise patterns.
There should be no question that these annual mental health awareness campaigns have been important. And, yet, one group has been neglected in this focus. It is us! It is the clinicians and administrators who work in mental healthcare.
Take psychiatrists, my profession. Our rate of burnout has been climbing steadily toward epidemic levels. It is now at 42%, according to the 2017 Medscape survey. The main expressions of burnout are cynicism, detachment and a sense of reduced effectiveness.
The burnout rate of all physicians is by far the highest of any occupation in the United States. Indeed, much mental healthcare is provided by family physicians. Similar concern seems to exist in administrators in mental health as well. In essence, our own mental health may be the worst in the country.
And it is not our fault. The tragic paradox of "Risky Business" for us is that the business of mental healthcare has put us at such high risk. In study after study, it seems like the system we work in remains the major causative factor when that system is oppressive and disempowering for clinicians and administrators. With threats to “Obamacare,” many are concerned that we will be even less well-funded and have to do more in less time. Meanwhile, insurance and for-profit managed care companies continue to be profitable.
Moreover, it seems like our having full-blown mental disorders is still stigmatizing. Our suicide rate is worrisomely high.
What, then, can we do for the rest of this month and over the next year? We can focus on our own well-being in a variety of ways, including:
- Set up an educational session for your organization about the risks to our own mental health;
- Celebrate the accomplishments of staff;
- Try to make the organization supportive for staff;
- Emphasize wellness through personalized self-care techniques;
- Monitor staff burnout through periodic meetings and the use of questionnaires like the Maslach;
- For those with burnout, find ways to rekindle passion, including participation in Balint or other such groups;
- Normalize the inevitability of mental illness in some of ourselves;
- Advocate politically for improved mental healthcare resources; and
- Connect to your local mental health association for more ideas.
We all do best when our work connects to our desire to be healers. Patients are adversely affected when we are burning out. Have you found other ways to maintain your passion for our work? Let us know if you have. Be well.