Medical Student Health

New policies target mental health stigma in physicians, students

Brendan Murphy , Senior News Writer

The AMA House of Delegates (HOD) took actions aimed at destigmatizing and studying mental illness among physicians and medical students during the 2017 AMA Annual Meeting in Chicago. Delegates also moved to help educate physicians about lay caregivers’ well-being.

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Citing extensive research that suggests state medical boards approach mental illness with more scrutiny than physical illness on licensing applications, the authors of an HOD resolution presented for consideration argued that “physicians may be less likely to seek treatment for mental health impairment for fear of sanctions or repercussions.”

With that, new AMA policy encourages “state medical boards to recognize that the presence of a mental health condition does not necessarily equate with an impaired ability to practice medicine.” Delegates asked the AMA to further study how medical licensing boards are advised to handle applicants with a history of mental illness.

“We are concerned that many physicians and physicians-in-training are dealing with burnout, depression and even suicidal thoughts, and we find it especially concerning that physicians have a higher rate of suicide than the general population. In fact, in March the AMA partnered with leading CEOs in the health care industry and declared that physician burnout is becoming a public health crisis that needs to be addressed,” said Omar Z. Maniya, MD, a member of the AMA Board of Trustees and medical resident.

“Today’s policy builds on the AMA’s current efforts to prevent physician burnout and improve wellness," he added. "We are committed to supporting physicians throughout their career journey to ensure they have more meaningful and rewarding professional experiences and provide the best possible care to their patients.”

Between 300 and 400 physicians commit suicide each year, according to a 2015 study published in JAMA Psychiatry. That same study concludes that “trainee depression and suicide are well-known concerns in the medical community that have not yet been adequately addressed.” 

Citing that data and acknowledging barriers to accessing care, the HOD adopted new policy encouraging the study of mental health among medical students. The policy calls for study of “medical student mental health, including but not limited to rates and risk factors of depression and suicide.” The policy also encourages medical schools to confidentially gather and release information on reporting rates of depression and suicide on an opt-out basis.

More than 40 million Americans are lay caregivers to adults age 65 or older, and 23 percent of those caregivers are between the ages of 45 and 64, according to a 2015 study conducted by the Pew Research Center.

The HOD adopted new policy that encourages partner organizations to create resources that support lay caregivers. . The AMA also will “identify and disseminate resources to promote physician understanding of lay caregiver burnout and develop strategies to support lay caregivers and their patients.”

Read more news coverage from the 2017 AMA Annual Meeting.