MENTAL HEALTH

Depression among medics a silent epidemic, say experts

Health workers also experience stigma associated with mental illness as with other Kenyans

In Summary

• Symptoms are shrugged off and often associated with work-related experiences.

• Depression has turned some doctors into episodic drinkers according Lukoye Atwoli. 

Lukoye Atwoli speaks during the 1st Annual Moral Injury Symposium held at the Nairobi Hospital on October 8, 2019.
SEEK HELP: Lukoye Atwoli speaks during the 1st Annual Moral Injury Symposium held at the Nairobi Hospital on October 8, 2019.
Image: MAGDALINE SAYA

Medics have been advised not to cover up for colleagues when they make mistakes at the workplace because some errors could point to depression.

The Nairobi Hospital Cicely McDonnell School of Nursing principal Margaret Sirima has termed depression among health practitioners a silent epidemic.

Sirima said that despite their training and experience, medics are sometimes unable to recognise the symptoms of depression when it happens to them.

Like other Kenyans, most of the health workers also experience stigma associated with mental illness.

“Stigma has made it easy for someone to visit a general practitioner when they have a cough, but no one wants to be seen near a mental facility when going through a tough situation,” Sirima said.

Some of the symptoms to look out for include moodiness, exhaustion, distraction, sleep difficulties.

She said such symptoms are shrugged off and often associated with work-related experiences.

Many of these problems are made worse by the fact that the long hours doctors work lead to difficulties within the family.

Sirima said depression is a disease that is underrated and overlooked even among healthcare providers.

“The negative perception keeps us from seeking appropriate help and in good time.”

This, she said, strongly relates to under-recognition and thus delayed or denied treatment and sometimes ends in suicide. 

Medscape National Physicians Burnout,  Depression and Suicide report released this year estimates that 37-45 per cent of non-mental health medics was unable to recognise depression.

A study done in Australia suggested a prevalence of 33.4 per cent among nurses compared to 14 per cent in the general population.

Another study conducted at a  nursing home in New York found that 32.1 per cent of nurses had depression while 44.2 per cent of their patients had depression.

"We must deal with our pain as health care providers before we deal with that of others. Hurting healers are hurtful healers," Lukoye Atwoli said.

Atwoli is an associate professor of psychiatry at the Moi University School of Medicine.

Atwoli noted that depression had turned some doctors into episodic drinkers hence the need to have a system that would allow healthcare providers to realise it is okay not to be okay.

“Doctors who engage in harmful substance abuse are harmful to patients since their decision-making capacity is impaired," Atwoli added.

The Nairobi Hospital is setting up a wellness programme for a thorough physical and mental examination for its medics.

The programme will be fully covered by the hospital.