Take Care: Mental health stigma in health care professionals

Sarah Fischer, PhD, UNMC Department of Psychiatry

Sarah Fischer, PhD, UNMC Department of Psychiatry

“Take Care” is a series of wellness-themed educational articles that run occasionally in UNMC Today. The articles are intended to remind us of the need to make self-care a priority.

If you found yourself in need of help with managing your mental health, would you feel comfortable doing so?

Mental health professionals tend to have higher rates of anxiety and depression compared to the general population. A 2015 meta-analysis found that depressive symptoms and depressive disorders among resident physicians averaged at about 29%. These numbers can rise significantly in times of severe stress and burnout, such as during a pandemic.

In 2023, a meta-analysis found a connection between burnout and stress, and a 2020 study looking at mental health early in the pandemic found that among health care providers surveyed, the prevalence rates of depression and anxiety were both approximately 57%. But mental health issues are not unique to health care providers, of course, and can affect any of us, regardless of our role at UNMC.

With the stress that accompanies working in health care and higher education, having adequate support is essential to managing one’s mental health. However, professionals often are hesitant to seek help and support when struggling with depression, anxiety or other challenging mental health conditions.

One of the commonly cited concerns is stigma, fears that others will hold negative bias toward them as a result of having a mental health diagnosis. Nearly half of all workers in all fields report that they do not feel they can discuss their mental health with their supervisors, and in recent surveys, 40% of physicians and 60% of medical students did not seek out mental health treatment when they needed it, citing stigma as one of the primary reasons.

Mental health concerns are often associated with weakness, an inability to do one’s job, instability and even dangerousness. These beliefs are based on inaccurate myths but can create problems for people in the workplace and create a sense of shame and secrecy.

One of the foundational steps to improving the mental health of our students, staff and faculty is to reduce stigma and shame, and work to create a culture of openness and support. This could include:

  • Leadership: Be transparent with combating stigma and set the tone for the organization’s culture; ensure that policies are in place to protect those that ask for help; support wellness programs; and push to ensure that students and employees have a reasonable work/life balance.
  • Supervisors: When a supervisee comes to you with concerns about their mental health, listen with empathy, assure them that they can continue to succeed, and connect them with resources.
  • Peers: Peer programs and supportive social contact are helpful. Support your fellow students and colleagues when they come to you, and encourage them to seek support when needed. Informal support groups are helpful as well.
  • Education: Include discussions about stigma and wellness in health care education programs.
  • Self: Put yourself first. Not seeking support when you need it is likely to cause the issue to escalate until it does cause problems with your work or personal life. Whenever possible, do not ignore your own health and wellness.