In just three months at least three South African anaesthesiologists have taken their lives, reported the South African Society of Anaesthesiologist’s (SASA) Natalie Zimmelman who said the profession was facing a mental health crisis.
“These are just the cases we know of. I’m afraid it is a far too common story,” she said.
Burnout, and related mental health issues, not only endangers individual healthcare workers but threatens the entire health system as anaesthetists are critical for the functioning of any hospital, according to Zimmelman.
There are roughly 1 300 registered specialist anaesthesiologists in the country and only a fraction (about 250) are estimated to be working in the public sector.
Public vs private burnout rates
Already a highly pressurised job, the added burden on public sector workers places them at more than double the risk of burn-out as their private sector counterparts, according to Professor Johan Coetzee from Stellenbosch University.
He said that 18 percent of public sector anaesthetists suffer from “extreme burnout” with seven percent of those working in private sector falling into the same category.
But, Zimmelman said that the recent suicides suggest all anaesthetists should pay attention to their mental health: “These doctors ranged from a young black woman in the beginning of her career to a white man in his 60s.”
Anaesthetists make life-and-death decisions on behalf of teams of surgeons, but the majority of SASA members fear seeking therapy because of how stigmatised mental illness is.
Sector rife with mental health stigma
This stigma has real-world consequences, added Zimmelman. A SASA member who shared her experience with burn-out in the media recently returned to her practice on a Monday morning to find cancelled appointments from patients who happened to read or hear about the newspaper article.
Despite burn-out being so prevalent among these health workers there is almost no awareness of the problem among medical professionals as well as the general public, according to Johannesburg-based private sector anaesthetist Dr Caroline Lee.
“The situation is serious. But the impact is not obvious because doctors prioritise patient needs over their own,” Lee said.
But the deaths – there have been at least six specialists who have committed suicide in the last 18 months – have caused some health professionals to start to break the silence on the issue.
Herculean tasks and hidden pain
Lee explained that anaesthetists are all too aware of the life-saving role they play and, because they are in such short supply, often sacrifice their hobbies, family-time and private lives.
“We would rather kill ourselves than kill a patient – which is what many of us think we are doing if we take the needed time off to take care of our mental wellbeing,” explained Lee.
April 7 marks World Health Day and SASA urged South Africans to take note of the mental health crisis amongst health staff and ask themselves the question: “Who cares for the caregivers?” – Health-e News
An edited version of this story was published by Health24.com