When the doctor becomes the patient

May 11, 2021 | Blog, Recovery Coaching

A photo of Dov smiling as he looks out over a harbour with a sunset in the background.

When the doctor becomes the patient

I am a medical specialist with a lived experience of bipolar disorder. I am not alone in this regard. We know that mental illness affects one in five people each year and Beyond Blue has published research showing that the prevalence is even higher amongst medical students and doctors. Despite this, it is still not widely talked about and many of us continue to suffer in silence. While we continually play the role of care givers for society, we are not well-trained at taking care of ourselves.

Both Sides Of The Fence

I am in the unique position of having experienced both sides of the fence, both as a psychiatric inpatient and a medical practitioner. Speaking from the doctor’s perspective, I am disappointed by stereotypical and belittling remarks made casually by some medical colleagues about patients with psychiatric problems.

“It is distressing to witness the discrepancy with which patients with mental illness are sometimes treated compared to patients who are unaffected.”

I believe that under-training is a large contributing factor to this ignorance. Despite the high prevalence of mental illness amongst our patients, we spend a disproportionately small fraction of our time in medical school learning about psychiatry and mental health disorders.

Language Matters

Language is very important when it comes to having conversations about mental health. For example, I often hear phrases like “I am a little bit OCD” casually thrown around which stigmatises those who suffer from this often debilitating illness.

Some mental illnesses have received more publicity and attention than others. While a lot of great work has been done to help destigmatise conditions such as anxiety and depression, mental illnesses with lower prevalence such as bipolar disorder, schizophrenia and obsessive-compulsive disorder get very little air time and are consequently less well-understood and managed by clinicians.

Insights From A Patient

Speaking from the patient’s perspective, I have been on the receiving end of this same stigma from hospital staff. I have not always been well supported by my employers, peers and unfortunately, some psychiatrists.

“My illness and episodes of hospitalisation during medical training have been gossiped about in the medical community and I am certain that this would have been handled far more professionally had I suffered a physical illness.”

Despite these difficult setbacks, tenacity and perseverance prevailed and allowed me to reach my career goals. Ultimately, having a mental illness has not affected my intelligence nor general competency as a doctor. If anything, it has made me a more empathic and holistic clinician.

Having been a patient in a psychiatric ward has allowed me to cultivate greater empathy for my own patients. I know first-hand how terribly under-resourced and over-crowded the mental health sector is, particularly in the public system. As an example, I did not have proper access to an outdoor area for about two weeks during one of my admissions and I also saw the psychiatrist for less than five minutes just once per week. The conditions were appalling and frankly, inhumane.

Given the large number of people in society affected by mental illness, patients suffering severe enough symptoms to warrant hospitalisation deserve far better than what our public system currently affords. Hopefully, the latest Royal Commission Report will begin to enact changes to help reform our broken system.

Accessing Help

Accessing treatment through the mental health system was not always easy. When I was first hospitalised for mania as a medical student, I found it quite interesting that amongst my peers of around 200 medical students, a lot did not identify that there was a problem and even if they did, no-one was able to successfully raise the alarm nor access appropriate services to help me. This made me think that if a medical student going through a mental health crisis amongst medical colleagues, lecturers and tutors was unable to obtain the attention and help needed, imagine what someone in the wider community faces.

Fortunately, supportive programs under the NDIS such as Recovery Coaching offered by One Good* Day now exist to support people living with psychosocial disability on their journeys through recovery.

Find out more about Recovery Coaching and the NDIS here.

About Dov

Dov is an OG*D adviser & content contributor. A practising medical specialist with lived experience of mental illness, Dov volunteers as a mental health advocate for SANE Australia and Beyond Blue. With a passion for destigmatising mental illness both within the medical community and wider society, he brings a unique and empathetic perspective to the OG*D team having experienced both sides of the fence as a medical practitioner and as a patient.

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