As many as one in 12 doctors are addicted to alcohol or drugs and most are untreated because of fear, guilt or denial, the British Medical Association annual meeting was told yesterday.
The hidden problems of addiction and stress are now causing doctors such concern that the Annual Representatives Meeting, in Harrogate, called on the Government to set up a 24-hour emergency helpline staffed by professionals.
If the Government does not act quickly, then the BMA was instructed by its members to spend pounds 300,000 on a pilot telephone scheme of its own for a period of one year.
As the conference turned confessional, Dr Peter Newman, an East Anglian GP, told of a colleague whom he had recently taken to a psychiatric hospital after receiving a desperate plea for help. "Here was a dedicated, innovative, caring professional reduced to a whimpering, tearful, dejected shadow of his former self. What right has the National Health Service to reduce this individual to this state?" Dr Newman asked.
Dr Fay Wilson, a Birmingham GP, told of her own suicide attempt when as a junior doctor she "came off the wards weeping from fatigue". She told the conference that her life had consisted solely of work and her marriage broke down. "Within three years of graduation I was in a state of exhaustion, despair, insomnia with feelings of guilt and failure. I knew the only way out was for me to die ...
"Within 24 hours I was in a psychiatric hospital and off work for two weeks. I didn't die but I know other people who did."
In a separate debate, Dr Michael Wilks, a GP from Richmond, west London, said it was estimated that 3 per cent of doctors are addicted to alcohol; 2 per cent to drugs and 3 per cent to a mixture of both.
The conference called on the BMA Council to investigate and to look for better ways of helping "impaired colleagues".
The proposal to spend pounds 300,000 on a helpline scheme - if the Government will not act - reverses a decision last year when a similar proposal was rejected because it was too expensive. It is estimated that a national scheme could cost pounds 4m.Reuse content