Being a surgeon or a medical consultant is still a male lead field, which also makes it a field where males do not like to admit weakness, stress, anxiety or depression, asking for help and support is an alien concept. Having worked so hard and so long to get to where they are, achieve what they have achieved, they cannot possibly be affected by such a trivial matter.
However, psychological wellbeing will conquer or defeat more profoundly than anything else. In general, there is less research documented on the mental health of consultants and surgeons, probably because most individuals would not share their trauma with the wider public. Although doctors come from a multitude of cultures and backgrounds they have their own unwritten group norms, developed over generations. For surgeons, these include beginning work early, finishing late, working nights and weekends (sometimes when not rostered to do so), meeting multiple deadlines, never complaining, and finally keeping emotions or personal problems away from the workplace. All the traits that can make them decisive and motivational leaders, can also be the same traits that leave them vulnerable to burning out.
Unconditional Faith and Heightened Expectations
Added to all of these a surgeon is given to burden of unconditional faith from the patient, they are believed to be miraculous and omnipotent in their healing powers. Most surgeons have contact with their patients at their most vulnerable, at their lowest ebb. It is impossible for any surgeon not to form a profound bond and intimate relationship with the human body and cannot avoid intense personal contact. When you physically have your hands inside another body, how can you not feel this infinite connection, so even when procedures go to plan, but the patient does not recover, the stopping point is still the surgeon and because of their predeposition they take on the full weight of the responsibility, remorse, guilt, questioning themselves and their ability. They are always under scrutiny to achieve, right the way through from their A levels.
In times past for a patient to get to see their consultant or surgeon prior to being in the theatre, was a big event. Junior Doctors and Registrars took the brunt of the caseloads, but with cutbacks and lowered numbers of new doctors this has meant that senior staff are much more visible and accessible. Along with the added strain of less qualified staff, almost all teams now are multi-cultural which means far more requirements, knowledge and understanding for integrated management skills.
Any individual that performs a procedure on a patient, feels the same responsibilities, but the nurses and radiologist have a better support system, the surgeons seem always to stand alone, this stress over time takes its toll.
Getting Support to Those Who Need It
So, how do we get the right level of support to the people who need it the most, but live in denial, thinking they do not need or want it?
Where does self-care and emotional resilience training need to start, at medical school, as a junior doctor, or senior positions? In reality, it should start from birth, teaching children to care about themselves, no matter what role they go into, could make so much difference, much less mental and emotional anguish, more stable relationships and increased personal empowerment, along with strengthened personal accountability.
On the long, arduous pathway to becoming a surgeon, people who started off as mentors and influencers, become rivals, friendships that start in medical school, fall prey to envy and jealousy as people choose different directions. Personal relationships suffer from the hours, demands and dedication of the vocation. In fact, being a surgeon can often feel like the loneliest place on earth, there can be many people around, but none are aware of the conflict and turmoil that the calm exterior is covering.
Helping yourself, whilst you are helping others is essential, lifting the veil that requires the stiff upper lip and the ice facade is a big demand and reversal of expectations, but it will be worth the change and life can feel very different.
When you read all the skills, traits, abilities, knowledge, experience and requirements needed to become a surgeon, it is no wonder that so many do not make the journey and many that do become psychologically and emotionally scarred. Remembering that these individuals are also human and fallible, just like everyone else, does not seem to be appreciated or expected by the wider public.
When Giving is Not Living
A medical career in any of the disciplines is constantly changing and evolving, keeping on top of your profession, learning new skills and adapting to varying demands, only makes the requirements of being a successful surgeon even more challenging.
Maybe it is time to step back and appreciate the true talents that our medical services encompass and help them to feel able and entitled to let their guard down, to be able to feel that they can and should care for themselves as much as they care for others.
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Take care of yourself and don’t feel bad about wanting, needing or asking for help.
Bye for now