In my first month of GP training my partner ended our relationship. Heartbreak turned into crippling anxiety, and I became so unwell that I had to take time off work.
I remember feeling so embarrassed and ashamed. As I saw it, getting a diagnosis of anxiety and depression meant that I'd failed. I'd struggled with symptoms for many years but had always been adamant I wouldn't seek help because I didn't want a mental health diagnosis on my record. I was scared of being judged or treated differently both inside and outside of work.
When I finally accepted support, it wasn't because I cared about my own wellbeing - I worried about the impact it would have on my ability to care for patients.
Nowadays, my mindset couldn't be more different. Since asking for help I've benefitted from counselling and cognitive behavioural therapy with the NHS Practitioner Health Programme, taken antidepressant medication and prioritised self-care as an important part of my week.
I'm also kinder since being diagnosed - to my loved ones, patients, colleagues and strangers. The capacity to care for others increases significantly once you start caring for yourself.
I've learnt, albeit reluctantly, that I cannot give the best care to my patients unless I make my own health a priority. As a GP, I welcome the opportunity to support my patients with their mental health. As a patient, would I want to be treated by a sleep-deprived, overwhelmed and frantic doctor, or a doctor who looks after their physical and mental health?
In therapy, I learnt that I can control my own thoughts, feelings and actions. When I first heard this, it felt like a huge responsibility, but I now feel empowered by it - I'm strong enough to look after my wellbeing, and I feel better prepared to tackle future life adversities. I teach and encourage all my patients to do the same.
Self-care for doctors
Both as a medical student and then junior doctor, I didn't feel encouraged to look after my mental health.
My career is rewarding, and I feel privileged to work as a doctor, but the reality is the work can be hard, the hours long and certain patient interactions can be emotionally draining. There's a risk of compassion fatigue and burnout. Figures from the National Training Survey 2022 showed nearly two-thirds of trainees are at moderate or high risk of burnout, and a recent MDU survey found eight out of 10 doctors felt burnt out.
Self-care is for everybody, irrespective of a mental health diagnosis.
Here's what worked for me:
- protect your physical health - prioritise your sleep, always try to take a lunch break and move your body regularly
- prioritise fun and rest in your life outside of work - it'll help you feel more energised when you are working.
- stay connected to your loved ones
- check in with yourself regularly - are you doing OK?
Support and resources
If you're currently struggling with your mental health, I hope you know that you're not alone and you deserve support. There's no shame in asking for help.
Here are some options to access support.
This page was correct at publication on 13/03/2023. Any guidance is intended as general guidance for members only. If you are a member and need specific advice relating to your own circumstances, please contact one of our advisers.
by Dr Stephanie Slater
Dr Stephanie Slater is a GP, health content creator and ambassador for mental health charity You Okay, Doc?. She shares her lived experiences of anxiety and depression through public speaking, articles and her social media channels (@drstephanieslater) to help end the stigma around mental health, especially within the NHS.