The doctor battling drink and depression will see you now ...

Thousands of medics hide their addiction or mental illness and carry on working. Sanchez Manning reports on calls to give them greater support

Thousands of doctors are continuing to treat patients while hiding their own problems with drink, drugs and depression because of a "culture of invincibility" among health professionals.

Each year hundreds of medics are treated for addiction and mental health issues, according to official statistics. But researchers investigating the issue say that this masks a much bigger problem, with thousands of doctors concealing their symptoms.

The extent of ill-health among doctors – often put down to burn-out caused by the high-pressure demands of their job – was highlighted in a General Medical Council report detailing 1,384 doctors who had been assessed for underlying health concerns over the past five years. Of these, 98 per cent were diagnosed with alcohol, substance misuse or mental health issues.

Some 544 doctors were found to have drink-related problems and 598 were diagnosed with mental conditions such as neuroses.

At the same time, the Practitioner Health Programme (PHP), a national service that sick doctors can contact to seek help, found that of 554 referrals, 85 per cent were related to mental health problems and 28 per cent to substance addiction.

Dr Max Henderson, from King's College London's Institute of Psychiatry, believes that these numbers represent the tip of the iceberg because doctors are often deterred from admitting that they are sick and need time off by feelings of shame.

A recent study led by Dr Henderson showed that medics who do fall ill fear being perceived as "weak" or "a failure" by colleagues. "There is a feeling among doctors, that illness shouldn't happen to them – that they should somehow be invincible," said Dr Henderson.

"Doctors are particularly vulnerable to 'presenteeism' and we know they are reluctant to use mainstream healthcare services and will sit on their symptoms and not share them with anyone. So they may treat themselves or they try to get their friends to treat them through what are known as 'corridor consultations'.

"The idea that there might be several thousand who have psychiatric problems and are unable seek help due to fear and issues of confidentiality is entirely feasible."

Dr Steve Moorhead, a consultant psychiatrist at Northumberland, Tyne and Wear NHS Trust, said: "When we treat doctors, we see the difficulty that they have coming to terms with their need for help. Maybe this is part of the health service culture of looking after other people first."

There has been little evidence to suggest that patients have been harmed by doctors who remain at work despite being unwell. But Dr Henderson admitted that such physicians are likely to provide a "less good service" to their patients.

One of the most recent surveys on the health of NHS staff, which involved questioning 2,500 doctors in Birmingham, showed the extent to which doctors are willing to hide mental problems or substance abuse issues. Only 13 per cent of respondents said they would seek help for mental health disorders or addiction, while 87 per cent said they would self-medicate or seek informal medical advice.

Occasionally, however, this unwillingness to seek help tips over into tragedy, as in the case of Daksha Emson an Indian-born psychiatrist who hid her fight against manic depression as she built her career. In 2000, during a psychotic episode, the 34-year-old mother stabbed herself and her three-month-old daughter to death. An inquiry later found that Dr Emson had feared her illness would not remain confidential and that the resulting stigma would have "haunted" her work and her life.

Despite improved specialist support services for doctors since then, Dr Henderson says that taboos among doctors about their own mental health continue.

He argues that doctors remain wary about making official reports about their illness for fear of having to deal with the GMC, which could "take their career away".

The Royal College of General Practitioners and Dr Henderson called this weekend for more funding for confidential support services for doctors, warning that looming cuts and the reform of the NHS would lead to an increase in the number of medics suffering poor mental health.

Dr Clare Gerada, chairwoman of the royal college and PHP's medical director, said: "We are seeing more sick doctors, more GPs in particular, more shame, more presenteeism, as doctors are worried about their futures. "

A Department of Health spokesman said yesterday that a new system of regular appraisals to support doctors is due to start next year.

'I didn't want to admit something was wrong. I just told myself to get over it'

Dr Peter Verow describes himself as a 'type A personality'. A former champion squash player who represented Britain and a respected consultant, he is by any standards a high-achiever.

But five years ago, at 55, he was hit was a debilitating illness — not cancer or heart problems — but depression. He went from exercising every day and enjoying a top-level career to barely being able to get out of bed.

"The depression came on out of the blue," he recalled. "It's like having a permanent black cloud hanging over your head."

At his lowest point, the occupational health specialist, now 59, admits that he even had thoughts of suicide. "But I knew that because of my wife and children I would never actually do that."

Despite such internal struggles, Dr Verow kept his meltdown secret. "I was probably ill for six months to a year before I finally accepted I had to go off work. Colleagues and friends didn't realise how bad I was.

"I didn't want to admit that there was something wrong with me. I frequently told myself to 'get over it, and pull yourself out of it'. But you can't pull yourself out it."

Dr Verow eventually sought help from a psychiatrist and took six months off work to recover. "My time away helped me to recognise that I had to change my work role in some way and so I went part-time," he said.

Voices
Lucerne’s Hotel Château Gütsch, one of the lots in our Homeless Veterans appeal charity auction
charity appeal
Arts and Entertainment
Tony Hughes (James Nesbitt) after his son Olly disappeared on a family holiday in France
tv
News
people

Jo from Northern Ireland was less than impressed by Russell Brand's attempt to stage a publicity stunt

Sport
Nabil Bentaleb (centre) celebrates putting Tottenham ahead
footballTottenham 4 Newcastle 0: Spurs fans dreaming of Wembley final after dominant win
PROMOTED VIDEO
Life and Style
ebookNow available in paperback
Life and Style
ebooksA superb mix of recipes serving up the freshest of local produce in a delicious range of styles
Arts and Entertainment
The Apprentice candidates Roisin Hogan, Solomon Akhtar, Mark Wright, Bianca Miller, Daniel Lassman
tvReview: But which contestants got the boot?
Life and Style
A woman walks by a pandal art installation entitled 'Mars Mission' with the figure of an astronaut during the Durga Puja festival in Calcutta, India
techHow we’ll investigate the existence of, and maybe move in with, our alien neighbours
Arts and Entertainment
Jim Carrey and Jeff Daniels ride again in Dumb and Dumber To
filmReview: Dumb And Dumber To was a really stupid idea
Arts and Entertainment
Sir Ian McKellen tempts the Cookie Monster
tvSir Ian McKellen joins the Cookie Monster for a lesson on temptation
News
i100
Travel
Tourists bask in the sun beneath the skyscrapers of Dubai
travelBritish embassy uses social media campaign to issue travel advice for festive holiday-makers in UAE
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating
    and  

    By clicking 'Search' you
    are agreeing to our
    Terms of Use.

    iJobs Job Widget
    iJobs General

    Ashdown Group: Helpdesk Analyst

    £25000 per annum: Ashdown Group: An established media firm based in Surrey is ...

    Ashdown Group: Java Developer - Hertfordshire - £47,000 + bonus + benefits

    £40000 - £470000 per annum + bonus: Ashdown Group: Java Developer / J2EE Devel...

    Ashdown Group: Head of Finance - Financial Director - London - £70,000

    £70000 per annum: Ashdown Group: Head of Finance - Financial Controller - Fina...

    Recruitment Genius: Business Development Executive - Nationwide - OTE £65,000

    £30000 - £65000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This small technology business ...

    Day In a Page

    Jeb Bush vs Hillary Clinton: The power dynamics of the two first families

    Jeb Bush vs Hillary Clinton

    Karen Tumulty explores the power dynamics of the two first families
    Stockholm is rivalling Silicon Valley with a hotbed of technology start-ups

    Stockholm is rivalling Silicon Valley

    The Swedish capital is home to two of the most popular video games in the world, as well as thousands of technology start-ups worth hundreds of millions of pounds – and it's all happened since 2009
    Did Japanese workers really get their symbols mixed up and display Santa on a crucifix?

    Crucified Santa: Urban myth refuses to die

    The story goes that Japanese store workers created a life-size effigy of a smiling "Father Kurisumasu" attached to a facsimile of Our Lord's final instrument of torture
    Jennifer Saunders and Kate Moss join David Walliams on set for TV adaptation of The Boy in the Dress

    The Boy in the Dress: On set with the stars

    Walliams' story about a boy who goes to school in a dress will be shown this Christmas
    La Famille Bélier is being touted as this year's Amelie - so why are many in the deaf community outraged by it?

    Deaf community outraged by La Famille Bélier

    The new film tells the story of a deaf-mute farming family and is being touted as this year's Amelie
    10 best high-end laptops

    10 best high-end laptops

    From lightweight and zippy devices to gaming beasts, we test the latest in top-spec portable computers
    Michael Carberry: ‘After such a tough time, I’m not sure I will stay in the game’

    Michael Carberry: ‘After such a tough time, I’m not sure I will stay in the game’

    The batsman has grown disillusioned after England’s Ashes debacle and allegations linking him to the Pietersen affair
    Susie Wolff: A driving force in battle for equality behind the wheel

    Susie Wolff: A driving force in battle for equality behind the wheel

    The Williams driver has had plenty of doubters, but hopes she will be judged by her ability in the cockpit
    Calls for a military mental health 'quality mark'

    Homeless Veterans campaign

    Expert calls for military mental health 'quality mark'
    Racton Man: Analysis shows famous skeleton was a 6ft Bronze Age superman

    Meet Racton Man

    Analysis shows famous skeleton was a 6ft Bronze Age superman
    Garden Bridge: St Paul’s adds to £175m project’s troubled waters

    Garden Bridge

    St Paul’s adds to £175m project’s troubled waters
    Stuff your own Christmas mouse ornament: An evening class in taxidermy with a festive feel

    Stuff your own Christmas mouse ornament

    An evening class in taxidermy with a festive feel
    Joint Enterprise: The legal doctrine which critics say has caused hundreds of miscarriages of justice

    Joint Enterprise

    The legal doctrine which critics say has caused hundreds of miscarriages of justice
    Freud and Eros: Love, Lust and Longing at the Freud Museum: Objects of Desire

    Freud and Eros

    Love, Lust and Longing at the Freud Museum
    France's Front National and the fear of a ‘gay lobby’ around Marine Le Pen

    Front National fear of ‘gay lobby’

    Marine Le Pen appoints Sébastien Chenu as cultural adviser