New federal law addresses stigma keeping medical professionals from getting mental health help

Burnout, stress, suicide known to be rampant in medical field, made worse by pandemic

New federal law addresses stigma keeping medical professionals from getting mental health help
New federal law addresses stigma keeping medical professionals from getting mental health help

SAN ANTONIO - – Medical professionals have one goal – to help the patient. Often, that includes tending to their patients’ mental health, but what about taking care of themselves and their own mental health?

Many providers admit it’s rare to seek help despite burnout and stress being rampant in the medical field.

“I think almost every physician has been at least connected to someone they’ve lost through physician suicide,” said Dr. Jennifer Gemmill, medical director at Methodist Hospital.

Research shows one doctor dies by suicide in the U.S. every day, yielding the highest suicide rate of any profession. The number of doctor suicide -- 28 to 40 per 100,000 -- is more than twice that of the general population.

One study out of Missouri found 20% of medical residents met the criteria for depression, while 74% met the criteria for burnout. That was exacerbated this past year by the COVID-19 pandemic, which often pushed medical workers to their breaking points.

“The pandemic didn’t really give us any time to breathe,” said Mary Ann Lozano, a medical surgical tech at University Hospital.

Lozano is open about her own mental health.

“I myself have been diagnosed with PTSD from an abusive marriage. I’ve overcome my PTSD to an extent, but that doesn’t mean I’m cured,” she said.

She also said that doesn’t mean she’s worse at her job.

“I love my job, and it relaxes me sometimes. I love to provide care for my patients. It’s something that is therapeutic for me. But there are some situations that are truly overwhelming,” Lozano said.

Gemmill knows how overwhelming it can be working in the ER every day.

“Sometimes the things that I see at work if I have a particularly bad day -- or during COVID when we were seeing a higher frequency of patients die in the emergency room and not having anything to do to save them -- those situations would come home with me,” Gemmill said.

Both women admit the mental health issues are common, but most of their colleagues never get help.

“The fear that you’re going to be considered weak or the fear that you’re going to be considered unable to do the job that you’ve trained for -- and I’m positive in most cases that is just absolutely not true, but it’s getting over that perception -- that is a huge, huge hurdle,” Gemmill said.

That was acknowledged this spring during the passage of the federal Dr. Lorna Breen Health Care Provider Protection Act, which does the following:

  • Authorizes funding for mental health training and services for health care professionals
  • Supports education campaigns to encourage healthier work conditions
  • Calls for research on causes and impact of physician burnout

“I am so supportive of this bill. But it is going to be a long process because it is stigmatic. If you say you’re depressed, people think you can’t handle this job, and it’s not true,” Lozano said.

Gemmill hopes the bill will take a whole culture change nationwide from the top of the industry down.

“It allows administration and those that are staffing physicians to really look at the environment and really just see how medicine has changed over the past 10 to 15 years. So many things the patients never see that we’re subjected to and graded on, and that’s a big part of the concept of wellness at work,” Gemmill said.

Many hospital systems and physician groups are already taking steps toward bettering the environment for their workers.

Gemmill is part of the Greater San Antonio Emergency Physicians, a physician-owned group that she said provides immense support for one another. She said she’s personally used and welcomed that support before.

Lozano mentioned University Hospital’s quiet or recharge rooms, which allow employees to decompress, debrief or seek several types of therapy during a difficult day.

University Health System has also enacted a trauma-informed care program internally to “build that culture change from the inside out.” Its goal is to create safe spaces where employees can open up about how they’ve been affected, their experiences, and their triggers. It encourages employees to share the emotional stresses of their work and invites discussion of strategies to deal with challenges that arise.

Both Gemmill and Lozano want their colleagues to know that struggling with mental health does not make them worse providers.

“It just makes you human. We’re all human. We’re not made of stone. We’re made of flesh and bone, and feelings and emotions, and we’re affected,” Lozano said.


About the Authors:

Courtney Friedman is a KSAT anchor and reporter. She has an ongoing series called Loving in Fear, confronting Bexar County’s domestic violence epidemic. She's also covered Hurricane Harvey, the shootings in Sutherland Springs and Santa Fe, and tornadoes throughout Texas. She’s a California native and proud Longhorn who loves calling SA home.