Am I in the right career?

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By all accounts he is a success in his field, a well-known and respected senior Fellow who cares deeply about medicine and his patients and has made a significant contribution to the field.

At different times in his career he’s also been challenged by, and successfully managed, depression.

Years ago, before there was even tacit acknowledgement that doctors could suffer mental health issues, excessively long shifts on top of Advanced Training, and often having sole responsibility for the ward as both an intern and registrar, saw him feeling helpless and hopeless.

“Those lengths of shifts would never happen now, back then I was totally exhausted all the time. When you’re so fatigued you even begin to resent patients.

“I was feeling slightly paranoid and wondering whether in fact I was in the right career. But I came from a medical family, both my parents were doctors, and it was just seen as a rite of passage.

“My response at the time was to get involved in resident medical officer work and issues such as safe work hours,” he said.

Later in life, several stressors combined to trigger another episode.

“We were trying to start a family and my wife had just had a miscarriage. On top of that I’d recently been sprayed in the face with fluid from an HIV positive patient – this was back in the days before we had any of the anti-viral drugs we do now.

“I was feeling incredibly tense all weekend and then when I travelled to work on Monday, I burst into tears and couldn’t stop crying. Not the ‘done’ thing for us blokes, but it was a sign. I sought an urgent appointment with a psychiatrist who diagnosed me with depression.”

Without minimising it, he’s sanguine about depression being something that can be managed. “It’s a pain in the neck – at times a real pain in the neck, but I just view it as that.

“I know through my training that depression is in fact an illness, it’s not a result of anything I’ve done wrong it’s just one of those unfortunate things.”

Mirroring the statistics that at least 30 per cent of the general population will suffer from a depressive episode at some point in their lives, he’s emphatic it shouldn’t impede a successful and ultimately very rewarding medical career, with the right treatment and support.

“It’s crucial to have your own GP. Physicians actually need to accept that in terms of treating depression and anxiety, GPs actually know a lot more than they do – GPs see, diagnose and treat people with these issues all the time.”

He stresses that those who feel their wellbeing is at risk should seek support and that fears around mandatory reporting should not discourage you from doing so.

For this Fellow, the safety of his patients and the promise to do no harm will always be paramount.

“I confidently and honestly fill out my declaration to the Australian Health Practitioner Regulation Agency (AHPRA) each year stating that I am not suffering from any conditions endangering the safety of my patients — because I know I’m not.”

Originally published in RACP Quarterly June/July 2017.
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