GP highlights mental health crisis behind doctor suicides

Former RCGP chair Professor Clare Gerada has highlighted the high risk of mental illness among doctors and warned that the suicide rate may be increasing.

Professor Clare Gerada (Photo: Pete Hill)
Professor Clare Gerada (Photo: Pete Hill)

Dr Gerada - medical director of the Practitioner Health Programme, which offers confidential treatment and management for doctors with mental health problems - warned that doctors face 'an incredibly high risk for mental illness'.

The former RCGP chair warned that admitting that doctors have mental health problems is 'the last taboo in the NHS'.

Figures from the Office for National Statistics (ONS) show that 430 health professionals took their own lives between 2011 and 2015 - including 81 doctors.

The warnings follow a report last week from mental health charity Mind that found 40% of GPs had experienced mental illness.

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Meanwhile, GPonline revealed earlier this year that more than 1,100 GPs had sought help for mental health issues including burnout, stress and addiction in the first 12 months after the NHS GP Health Service - run by PHP - opened its doors. In 2015, GPonline reported on a warning from one leading GP that doctors under investigation faced a 13-times higher risk of suicide than the general population.

Dr Gerada told BBC2's Victoria Derbyshire programme on Monday doctors were at 'an incredibly high risk for mental illness' and that the rate of suicides among doctors may be increasing.

The former RCGP chair said that while in London doctors were able to self-refer to the PHP service, outside of London they had to ask for help through their CCG - stripping them of confidentiality.

She called for the ability to self-refer to the service service to be extended nationally. Dr Gerada also highlighted the huge impact on doctors that complaints can have.

Fitness to practise

Anna Rowland, assistant director of the GMC's fitness-to-practise department, said the organisation had made major reforms to its processes, with an emphasis on mental health, to ensure vulnerable doctors were identified and supported.

NHS England said: 'We launched the NHS GP Health service in 2017, a world-first, nationally funded confidential service which specialises in supporting GPs and trainee GPs experiencing mental ill health and which has already helped more than 1,500 GPs.

'NHS Trusts and CCGs may offer additional support for professionals in their area, for example CCGs in London have commissioned the NHS Practitioner Health Programme for their staff.'

One doctor told the programme how her 26-year-old daughter, a junior doctor, took her own life just 24 hours after experiencing a panic attack while working on a paediatrics ward.

Dr Laurel Spooner said: 'If she could have seen somebody… and had the right medication, I expect she would still be here.'16, Dr Spooner's daughter, 26-year-old junior doctor Sophie, suffered a panic attack while working on a paediatrics ward.

The ONS confirmed that of the 81 cases in which doctors took their own lives between 2011 and 2015, 59 were male and 22 female. Official statistics show that the risk of suicide among male doctors aged 20 to 64 years old was lower than that observed among all men in England of the same age. For female doctors, the level of risk was equal to that observed among all women in England of the same age.

Note: This story was updated to correct inaccurate figures supplied in a BBC press release. The release said that 430 doctors had taken their own lives from 2011 to 2015, but the Office for National Statistics has confirmed this figure relates to all health professionals.

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