Nearly 30 percent of resident physicians experience clinical depression during their residency, according to a new review of research. (Photo: Getty Images)
Doctors-in-training may face a higher risk of their own secret suffering, according to a study published in The Journal of the American Medical Association.
In the new review of research, researchers discovered depression among medical students and resident physicians was significantly higher than the rates found in the general population.
The meta-analysis involved data from 54 studies published in peer-reviewed journals between January 1963 to September 2015, which included 17,560 doctors-in-training. The findings: Roughly 28.8 percent of these early physicians go through bouts of clinical depression during their residency, much higher than the roughly 6.7 percent of Americans who experience depression annually reported by the National Institute of Mental Health. On top of that, around 43 percent of resident physicians tend to get depressed in any one year of their training.
These stats seem to be on the rise since the early 1960s, as well, according to Douglas A. Mata, MD, a resident physician in pathology at Brigham and Women’s Hospital and clinical fellow at Harvard Medical School. He says it’s an “open secret” that depression is rampant among resident physicians.
“Ask anyone in medicine, and they’ll be able to rattle off a list of colleagues who have been through depression,” Mata tells Yahoo Health. “Many of my medical friends have grappled with depression or burnout at some point in their careers. I’ve even experienced it myself more than once. Many doctors will, unfortunately, also have an acquaintance or friend who committed suicide.”
Mata says his former college roommate, also a training physician, ended his own life. According to study co-author, Marco A. Ramos, MPhil, MSEd, an MD/PhD candidate at Yale School of Medicine, the suicide statistics in medicine are also alarming.
“Male and female physicians are 1.4 and 2.7 times more likely to commit suicide, respectively,” Ramos tells Yahoo Health. “In other words, when docs attempt to kill themselves, they’re much more likely to be successful at it.”
Although past research has suggested depression among physicians might be the same as the general population, this meta-analysis finds a drastic difference among residents. Mata says the higher numbers are not shocking, which are about the same across specialties and countries, given the toll of pursuing a career in medicine.
“Becoming a doctor involves studying and deferring gratification for years, taking on thousands of dollars in debt, missing out on important life events of friends and family due to work obligations, treating critically ill patients, and witnessing trauma and death in person,” Mata explains. “We’re conducting this study to bring real facts to the table, to show that depression among doctors and residents is not going away and we need to seek solutions.”
Since depression, unfortunately, can carry stigma, physicians-in-training often avoid seeking treatment for their symptoms. Untreated depression often runs side-by-side with other medical conditions, especially stroke and heart attack when it develops in early adulthood. Mata says depression has also been linked to an increase in medical errors. Sleep disturbances may also result, putting docs at greater odds of needle-stick injuries and bloodborne pathogen exposure.
That said, Mata insists you shouldn’t worry about depressive symptoms impacting your doc’s ability to perform on the job; most physicians genuinely love taking care of patients and take pride in doing their work well. “What I worry more about is attrition among medical staff,” he explains. “Widespread depression among doctors will inevitably cause good docs to work fewer hours, and even leave the field. This may even discourage young people from going into medicine in the first place. This has broad safety implications for the health of our population as a whole.”
Since the depression stats are getting more grim with each passing decade, Ramos says his message to physicians and training physicians is simply to be more vigilant. “Doctors need to pay more attention to their own mental well-being and that of their colleagues,” he explains. “As the data show, the problem isn’t getting any better.”
Ramos says future research needs to focus on the underlying causes of depression among young docs, and what strategies might work to effectively relieve some of those major burdens — from treating critical illness and injury, to delayed gratification and debt.
What can you do in the meantime? “Just tell your doctors ‘thank you’ and make sure they understand what they mean to you,” Ramos says. “That goes a long way.”