Ontario physicians sought more mental health-care help during the first year of the pandemic: study

The first year of the pandemic saw more Ontario doctors seeking medical help for burn out and substance abuse, according to a new study.

Using a database in Ontario, researchers collected anonymous data on 34,000 practicing physicians who had 50,000 mental health visits over the first year of the pandemic.

According to the details of the study published in the journal JAMA Network Open on Friday, there were 27 per cent more visits for mental health support in the first year of the pandemic when compared to 2019.

“It reflects a deterioration in the mental health of physicians; coming in to talk to someone saying that you’re depressed or anxious or that you’re having trouble with substances. They were happening before the pandemic, but I think that they’ve gotten worse,” said Dr. Daniel Myran, study author, family physician and researcher at the University of Ottawa’s Department of Family Medicine, in an interview with CTV News.

He said he thinks a “substantial portion” of the mental health visits are explained by new pandemic related stresses and challenges. “Given the well documented reluctance of physicians to seek care for their mental health, [it] is probably capturing only a small amount of the overall increase in mental distress during the pandemic,” he said.

“Physicians are generally very secretive about seeking mental health care. There continues to be stigma about doing this. They’re talking to psychologists or counselors or accessing health helplines. They’re not invincible, perfect people.” 

The study found that female physicians had higher rates of mental health visits compared to male physicians. Psychiatrists had the highest rate of annual visits, while surgeons had the lowest rate.   Intensive care unit and emergency physicians, two areas hardest hit by COVID-19 surges, had lower rates of mental health visits.

“It could be that they’re particularly resilient. It could be that there are specialty or cultural specific perceptions. Maybe they didn’t have time. It’s probably a mixture of all three,” said Myran.

Studies before the pandemic showed that about a third of doctors reported anxiety and depression related to working in a health-care system that was already struggling with growing patient demand and stretched resources.

There was a large boost in online psychological supports for doctors early in 2020 that researchers think made it easier for doctors to book appointments and keep them private.

Whatever the reason, Dr. Katharine Smart, president of the Canadian Medical Association, says studies show doctors need to be healthy themselves to help patients.

“We know physicians who are unwell are less safe for patients. We know they don’t contribute in the same way to the health system. So it’s a global issue, and it’s great to see it getting that attention and that we’re starting to study it and try to better understand,” said Smart.

Researchers say they suspect other health-care workers are in the same boat.

“There’s very little reason to suspect that other health-care providers are also not having just as tough a time, in some cases maybe a tougher time,” said Myran.

“The pandemic has been hard for everyone. It’s been a bad two years.”

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