The suicides of three young doctors in New South Wales within just five months has led to calls for a review of mandatory reporting laws, which many health professionals believe are stopping doctors from asking for help.
Psychiatrist Dr Helen Schultz said practitioners were reluctant to come forward for fear of losing their medical licence.
“I get really caught between that R U OK Day and tell everyone [about your mental health] and there’s no stigma … to actually, tell nobody, keep it to yourself. Because that grey area could end up being misused against you,” Dr Schultz said.
A mature-aged student when she came to medicine, Dr Schultz struggled with her own mental health. She sought help after the suicide of a colleague, but wasn’t sure she would do so today.
“I was feeling very disenfranchised with doing medicine … I was crying driving to work, I felt very low self-esteem at the time and I went and saw this person and this person got me help,” she said.
“But would I tell somebody now if I was that fourth year student in an era of mandatory reporting? I don’t know.”
‘They were going to save many lives’
Professor Brad Frankum, president of the Australian Medical Association (NSW), said mandatory reporting could be “a very challenging and threatening experience for anybody”.
“If a doctor discloses to their treating [doctor] that they have drug addiction problems or mental health problems, then it is mandatory for that treating doctor to report that to AHPRA [Australian Health Practitioner Regulation Agency],” he told 7.30.
“Once that report happens, AHPRA can’t ignore it of course and an investigation needs to take place.”
Prof Frankum said in the past 12-18 months he was aware of three young doctors in training who had taken their lives, as well as two senior doctors and a young medical student.
“They were going to save many lives and do great things, and that potential is lost,” he said.
Family could see young doctor was struggling
One of those young doctors was Chloe Abbott, who had just landed a job at Sydney’s St Vincent’s Hospital to do her physician training, with dreams of becoming an endocrinologist.
“It was just this calling that she had that she wanted to help others. She wanted to make other people’s lives better,” her mother Leonie Eagles said.
Last year those closest to Chloe began to notice the determined young doctor was struggling.
“I did say to Chloe in September 2015 that I was really worried that this job was going to cost her her life,” her sister Jessica said.
Chloe’s friend, Dr Zac Turner, recalled Chloe was also grappling with the death of a colleague, a young registrar who had taken her own life.
“Quite dramatically it affected Chloe. They were working together at Campbelltown, they were part of the same network,” Dr Turner said.
“You work from before dawn to well after dusk at night with people. There’s a real community and family and camaraderie, in some aspects, in the hospital and I don’t think she processed that particularly well, I don’t know if the support was there.”
Late last year Chloe was admitted to a psychiatric inpatient ward.
Few knew at the time that Chloe was facing a career crisis: her medical registration had been suspended.
In January this year, Chloe took her own life. Her family is still struggling to come to terms with it.
“Six months ago I never would have thought I’d have a daughter that would have committed suicide,” Leonie Eagles said.
“I had a daughter who loved her life, sisters, boyfriend, and to think that she’s given that up because of the positions medicine has put her in is just heartbreaking.
“They can’t sweep this under the carpet and say we’ll look at it in six months, 12 months. Four more people could have lost their lives in six months.”
‘Young doctors need to be supported’
Seven weeks into the job, NSW Health Minister Brad Hazzard says his department is taking the issue of young doctor suicides seriously.
“It’s a cultural issue which goes back for decades and we need to make sure that the older doctors supervising the younger doctors understand in this day and age those pressures need to be recognised, and the young doctors need to be supported,” he said.
“We’re bringing a forum of all these young doctors and older doctors as well together in June to allow them to express their concerns.”
Psychiatry registrar Dr Ben Veness is seeking a special commission of inquiry, and has written to Mr Hazzard on behalf of 150 of his colleagues.
“In our letter we ask for an in depth investigation into what are the factors that are underlying doctors’ distress,” Dr Veness said.
“What I think we need to do is something different from what’s been done before and that is looking at other industries as well, having expertise from outside, things like the mining industry which has also suffered from high suicide rates.
“Also we’d like to see what are the things that are being done or could be done to identify doctors who are at risk, so we’re not waiting for a tragic event like one of these suicides.”