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Doctors let their mental health slide over licensing fears

No one should have to choose between staying employed and seeking help for depression -- but a lot of physicians feel like that's exactly the choice they have to make.

A rash of suicides among physicians and several recent studies have people taking a hard look at what's going on in the medical community. According to experts, doctors have the highest suicide rates of all workers in the United States. Yet, doctors seldom seek help for their mental illnesses.

Why? They fear that even something as common as depression could cost them their license to practice once the medical board finds out.

The problem, naturally, is that medical boards routinely ask about mental health treatment during licensing applications and renewals. Doctors fear that any admission that they have sought treatment could expose them to bias and some form of retaliation. Around 40 percent of physicians admit they would hesitate to seek mental health treatment under any circumstances because of the potential issues for their license.

This isn't good news for doctors -- and it may be worse news for their patients. One recent study tied depression or "burnout" among physicians with not only thoughts of suicide but also mistakes that could injure patients. Among the physicians who reported making serious mistakes on the job, 78 percent admitted that they were feeling depressed or burned out -- and more than 12 percent were contemplating suicide.

For doctors, this is a Catch-22 situation. If they seek help for their depression, they may improve -- which would reduce the risk of a serious medical mistake with a patient but increase the odds that the medical board will suspend their license somehow. If they don't seek help, the medical board won't have any reason to suspend their license -- but they may be putting patients at risk due to untreated mental disorders and still endanger their licenses.

If you're a physician suffering from depression or another mental illness, an attorney can help you understand your rights and decide on a course of action designed to protect your right to practice.

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