CHICAGO – Chicago emergency room doctor Meeta Shah wiped down her face shield and stethoscope as she rushed from one patient to the next, some of them very sick with COVID-19, some of them dying.
At home, she worried about how to keep her husband — also an ER doctor — and her two young children safe from the virus: Shower at work? Stop hugging the kids?
And then there were the challenges of supervising her children’s remote learning, of a sudden gap in child care, of work emails that stretched past midnight.
“It just really started to feel like a lot. It felt like my mind was loud, all the worry was so loud and I just wasn’t sleeping as well as I should,” said Shah, 43, who works at Rush University Medical Center.
“One of my friends always said, ‘I don’t understand why people don’t just talk to a therapist. There’s no shame in it.’ So I just started talking to somebody, and it was really a nice outlet,” Shah said.
Doctors have long faced daunting obstacles to receiving the most basic mental health services, with studies showing that many avoid therapy and counseling due to intense stigma, as well as fear that they will be penalized by supervisors and state medical boards.
But now, with COVID-19 adding to their stress, doctors are increasingly pushing back against a “grind” workplace culture that celebrates stamina at the expense of self-care, as well as state medical boards that ask intimidating questions about mental health.
“We’re humans just like everyone else, so yes, at times we’re going to need mental or physical health care,” said Kim Templeton, a professor of orthopedic surgery at the University of Kansas Health System.
A recent poll from the American College of Emergency Physicians found that 87% of emergency room doctors are experiencing more stress during the pandemic and 57% of ER doctors say they would be concerned for their jobs if they sought mental health treatment.
In response to the pandemic, the American Medical Women’s Association launched its Humans Before Heroes initiative, with doctors working to improve the mental health questions asked when they obtain or renew their medical licenses.