Are Psychiatrists More Likely to be Mentally Ill Because They Listen to Mentally Ill Patients Too Much That They Become 'Insane' Themselves?

Recently, one of the legislators compared pan-democrats to ‘mental patients’, and herself and fellow legislators to psychiatrists, and said that she and the others were likely to be mentally ill because ‘[they] listen to mentally ill patients too much [that] they become insane themselves.’ In response to such allegation, the Hong Kong College of Psychiatrists issued a statement, condemning that legislator as being discriminatory to the over 200,000 mentally-ill patients receiving treatment, and that it would deter those who are ill from seeking appropriate treatment, which would add additional burden to our already overburdened psychiatric services. The Hong Kong Medical Association also condemned that legislator’s speech as being inappropriate and derogatory towards people with mental illness, deepening public’s misunderstanding towards people with mental illness, and disrespectful to the medical profession. The Association urged that legislator to be a positive role model, and to help people with mental illness cope with public stigma and reintegrate into society.

 

Since these two authoritative organizations already condemned that legislator and called for removing the negative labels on people with mental illness, as advocates for these individuals, the Health In Mind Programme would not spend further time on issuing another statement. But do you know whether there are evidences supporting or refuting the claim that ‘psychiatrists are more likely to be mentally ill because they listen to mentally ill patients too much that they become “insane” themselves’?

 

To answer this question, we must first understand whether mental illness can be caused by contact with individuals with mental illness, including but not limited to listening to what they say, modelling, or by contagion. Currently, the biopsychosocial model is being widely used by the medical profession to explain the causes of mental illness, meaning that it is not caused by a single factor, but rather caused by a myriad of factors that influence each other. The causes include:

  • Biological factors
    • Genetic make-up, brain trauma, medication / drug / alcohol
  • Psychological factors
    • Personality (e.g. anxiety-prone, perfectionism), low self-esteem, lack of constructive coping skills
  • Social factors
    • Stress, significant negative life events, negative childhood experience (e.g. abuse, being bullied), poor social relationship / lack of social support

 

Therefore, contact with individuals with mental illness, such as listening to what they say, modelling, or by contagion, are not factors contributing to the development of mental illness. What that legislator said had no scientific basis at all!

 

Indeed there have been a lot of researches done in the western world on the mental health (particularly on depression) in doctors (of all specialties, not just limited to psychiatry). Results found no statistically significant difference between the life prevalence rates of depression among doctors and the general population (which is about 12%). However, it is worthy of note that suicide rate among doctors are 1-5 times higher than that of the general population! Some researchers suggested that the medical professional culture might have discouraged doctors to seek help when they in fact needed, resulting in higher suicidal rate. For instance, the medical training emphasizes doctors to appear tough at all times, even when facing life and death, and never show signs of vulnerability; therefore doctors may avoid seeking psychiatric help even when they are depressed, so as to avoid being labelled as weak. Also, some doctors may fear losing their medical license if they reveal their depression. These factors become barriers to treatment for doctors, which can worsen their depression, leading to suicide.

 

So please remember, no one is immune to mental illness, regardless of their academic backgrounds and professions (please DON’T think only people who are in contact with the mentally ill are at higher risk of developing mental illness), and do not let stigma become a barrier to treatment, because it can lead to dire consequences!

 

References:

Bright, R. P. & Krahn, L. (2011). Depression and suicide among physicians: Stigma, licensing concerns, other barriers to treatment can be overcome. Current Psychiatry, 10(4). Retrieved from http://www.currentpsychiatry.com/home/article/depression-and-suicide-among-physicians/b1d152751a0bb7bf9e4c2b5aeb2a416e.html

 

Center, C., Davis, M., Detre, T., Ford, D. E., Hansbrough, W., Hendin, H., Laszlo, J., ... Silverman, M. M. (2003). Confronting depression and suicide in physicians: a consensus statement. JAMA, 289, 23, 3161-6.

 

Miller, N. M., & McGowen, R. K. (2000). The painful truth: physicians are not invincible. Southern Medical Journal, 93, 10, 966-73.