“We push ourselves to help others, even if it means losing sight of who we are. But we have our basic emotional needs, like everybody else. The nature of the profession, which is that you work to help others, makes you forget that sometimes you need help, too.“
In my job, I see a lot of people struggling with their mental health and this is perhaps unsurprising. We’re all human and carry psychological burdens with us. I’m very aware of that when I see patients, but although less frequently perhaps, when I interact with my colleagues.
A friend of my wife from university was a surgeon. He played rugby and a big part of the university culture was drinking. He had never drunk before, but got quite heavily into drinking during his time there. 3 or 4 months ago, we found out that he died of intoxication. He was in a quite serious depression, and as a consequence of depression, he’d been sanctioned at work, and made to be taken time off. Behind that, I think that there was a tragic story about how lonely he was, how isolated he felt. Because of the working conditions that we have; we are often isolated. The working hours are different for everyone, and we don’t feel like we have a team anymore, whereas when I first trained, we belonged to a ‘firm’ or clinical team.
My wife’s friend wouldn’t show that he was struggling too much. I think that it’s a common problem with people, especially men who are struggling with their mental health. They have trouble expressing themselves on their own mental health.
When I see a beer bottle, I think about what happened to my wife’s friend. Because, this poor guy. He was a really good man. His core belief was admirable. But he was pushed into a world that he didn’t really belong to. He isolated himself from friends and colleagues. This was probably influenced by the alcohol, with a devastating end. It speaks a lot about the pressure around being a doctor. We push ourselves to help others, even if it means losing sight of who we are. But we have our basic emotional needs, like everybody else. The nature of the profession, which is that you work to help others, makes you forget that sometimes you need help, too. We always joke about how bad doctors are at being patients. And that’s true in a way. I think it comes from this mindset that we always have to give.
I often conceptualize mental health in the patients that we see, but it’s also valuable to reflect on the impact it has on my colleagues and I. Talking about mental health amongst colleagues is not common at all in my experience, especially in the UK. It might be a cultural thing. I’m personally open about it, because it is common in Argentina, where I’m from, to express emotions. But I almost never have conversations about mental health with colleagues. Those who struggle take a bit of time to actually come forward. Usually, you see anger, frustration, but that’s not the real emotion. It hides sadness, and it’s often about them being upset about something else.
When it comes to me, I consider myself a self-intuitive person. I could do better at reflecting, but I do think about my mental health. I try to make changes, and take action to prevent it being an issue. The patients that we see and manage often have significant medical and psychological disorders. And you give a lot of your soul to these individuals. So, I think that it’s important to take time for yourself. But I’m aware that it’s not always possible to find space and time for it. I still try. Because ultimately, I’m not a doctor. I’m me. Being a doctor is just my job.
I have kids. For me, that’s the most incredible method of dealing with mental health issues. Because they make you see the world in a different light. Work life is full of pressure, of deadlines. But at their age, they have a different perspective. I have a day a week dedicated to my kids. It’s important to live in the present as much as possible. I value life a lot, and I feel like I have a lot to give to my family. It’s important to have that day off, go to galleries, go to day trips, and live life, not wait for retirement to start living.
I read a lot of philosophy when I was younger. I fall back on that to try to gain perspective on life. Imagine someone looking at Earth all the way from the space. We are like little insects running around. So, do we really need to do all this? This thing that stresses us out, is it that important? Often not. A little philosophy is good. It’s good to just spend 5 or 10 minutes without looking at your phone, without doing anything else. Just sitting, observing the world. In Argentina, people often take breaks just to be and observe the world. It feels like freezing time. And it’s such a lovely thing to do.
It’s important to raise awareness of the lack of insight that we’ve got into mental health as doctors, and the lack of facilities we have to express that in a meaningful way. We engage with it but in a superficial way. We’d have sessions of mindfulness, but it’s not really engaging.
There has to be better ways to support people, to tell people that being sad is okay. Sadness is a part of life, just like happiness is. It’s a normal emotion. What matters is resilience, and trying to cope with it, instead of hiding it. The beer bottle should represent a gathering with friends, those we love. To share the good times, and the bad, not an object to hide behind.