What Physicians Can Do to Defeat the Stigma of Seeking Help

Posted on September 13, 2022 by Diane W. Shannon, MD, MPH, PCC

Updated August 9, 2023

It’s known physicians are stressed and struggling in many clinical settings today. Overwork, burnout, moral injury—these and other serious problems are severely impacting physicians, often past their limits.

insight_physiciansdefeatstigmaThey need help but are often hesitant to ask for it. With enormous workloads, who has time for self-care? In addition, physicians and nurses are trained and expected to be superheroes. To prioritize the patient’s needs ahead of their own and ignore fundamental needs such as nourishing food, adequate rest, regular bathroom breaks and more. There’s a stigma in the medical community attached to seeking help, particularly emotional and mental health help. It can feel weak  to admit to important human needs.

There are ways to address this stigma with awareness and actions from individuals, colleagues and organizations. Specifically, you as a physician can:

Accept your humanity. This may seem intuitive, but it is crucial—and often pushed aside. Physicians should acknowledge they have valid human needs and they deserve to have those needs met.

Be aware of stress, loss of joy in medicine and incipient burnout. Paying attention to your emotional state is important in order to identify developing emotional and mental health problems.  It isn’t an easy thing to self-monitor in this way and checking in with a colleague periodically is a helpful barometer. For example: “Stacy, you know me pretty well. Have you noticed any changes in my mood or my behavior recently?

Ask for help. A powerful strategy to address the stigma is to defy it completely. 

  • Speak to a colleague honestly about stress, anxiety or depressed mood.
  • Talk with leadership about organizational needs around physician well-being 
  • Be a role model by taking advantage of existing well-being resources and share your experiences with colleagues 

For more on what individuals, colleagues and leaders can do to beat the stigma, read Physicians and Their Experience with the Stigma for Seeking Help, here.

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