Depression, burn out, trauma, exhaustion: inside the minds of doctors

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We like to believe doctors are all-powerful and omniscient. When we visit one, it is naturally concerns about our own health that are uppermost in our minds.

Yet rarely do we stop to consider the psychological toll a doctor’s work takes on them. In my work as a psychologist specialising in helping doctors, I have seen at close quarters just how serious this toll can be. The emotional and physical strain experienced by those in the medical profession is described in my new book, Also Human: The Inner Lives of Doctors, in which I’ve tried to shine a light on the hidden cost of medicine.

For more than 20 years, I have met doctors dealing with depression, burn out, extreme trauma, exhaustion, anxiety, and a whole host of other problems, which they must somehow set aside while powering through long shifts helping others.

Bella was one example; a real high flyer, she attended one of the most academic medical schools in the country, winning prizes in both medicine and surgery. But as her first day of work as a junior doctor approached, she experienced a mounting dread: how would she cope with the demands of the job?

A few weeks in, she was approaching the end of a 13-hour shift in A&E. She and her peers had been clearly told in their induction they must not work more than 13 hours at a time. Some doctors, once they’re 12-and-a-half hours in, will busy themselves with paperwork rather than take on any new cases, but Bella wasn’t like that, and took on a new patient just before her shift ended. First she made sure that all the immediate tasks had been completed. But when she went to her supervisor to try and ensure a safe handover, she was given a furious dressing down in front of the whole team and accused of being irresponsible.

Despite what she’d been told in her training, Bella was ordered to stay for as long as it took to finish treating the patient, and ended up working a 15-hour shift.

Too exhausted to drive home, she went to the toilets and broke down in tears. When a colleague found her crying there, she was devastated the image of herself as a cool and competent doctor was torn to shreds.

Perhaps society will eventually recognise that, while the demands of a job in medicine are exceptional, doctors, like their patients, are also human

With her confidence destroyed, an insidious depression spiralled rapidly out of control. Again, Bella did as she’d been instructed to do in medical school and asked her supervising consultant for help. His response? “Of course this is how you feel. You’re an F1 [Foundation Year 1 medic]; you’re a girl. You’re going to be upset.” She ended up leaving frontline healthcare and working in pharmaceuticals.

Bella’s case is far from exceptional. Over the years I have seen a number of junior doctors who have become so distressed in their first posts they have had to stop work. Some leave permanently while others – like Kelly – return to the profession.

Within days of starting her first job as a doctor, Kelly thought, ‘I can’t do this any more.’ So extreme was her anxiety, she vomited out of fear every morning before work. A couple of weeks later she went to speak to the senior clinician in charge of training; the clinician was so concerned about Kelly’s state of mind, she mentally ran through a suicide checklist before letting her go home.

“I’m not going back,” Kelly told me in our first sessions. But she did, eventually, return, and is now on her way to completing her training as a psychiatrist.

Hilary, a GP who came to see me because she was also thinking of leaving medicine, described her first day as a junior doctor years earlier, in which she was the only doctor on the surgical ward that day. Faced with a very sick patient who looked like she was going to die, she had little idea what to do and no-one to ask. When a fledgling doctor attached to another ward walked past, she spotted Hilary’s distress and summoned her own mother, a highly experienced nurse in the same hospital, who immediately took control of the situation.

“Figure it out yourself, blue eyes,” came the response. And with that the nurse walked off – probably to get on with her own enormous list of tasks.

ven when the systems function more effectively, and junior doctors aren’t thrown in at the deep end, it remains the case that death, dying and distress are inescapable components of a doctor’s work. Yet there’s little understanding of what happens when doctors are exposed to such traumas repeatedly. How do they respond when they hear a patient screaming in pain, or see the ravages of disease or trauma on somebody’s body? How do they cope when they need to tell a parent their child has died? A common defence is to shut down emotionally, unable to take on board so much suffering. This is understandable but can rapidly turn into burn-out. Yet if they can’t put any form of protective barrier between themselves and the suffering of their patients, very rapidly they can become overwhelmed. Neither response is healthy, but doctors are given precious little help with finding the middle way.

In another incident, a devout Muslim doctor was looking at an x-ray of someone with broken bones when a consultant said to him, “you people blow people up.”

Perhaps historians looking back at how we treated doctors in 2018 will regard our medical systems with the same horror we do when reading about surgeons in the 19th century refusing to wash their hands between patients. Perhaps society will eventually recognise that, while the demands of a job in medicine are exceptional, doctors, like their patients, are also human.

Names have been changed

As told to Rosa Silverman

Also Human – the Inner lives of Doctors by Caroline Elton is published by Cornerstone (£16.99). To order your copy for £14.99 plus p&p call 0844 871 1514 or visit

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