Choosing Meaningful Actions to Support Clinicians’ Mental Health

Choosing Meaningful Actions to Support Clinicians’ Mental Health

Why It Matters

During Mental Health Awareness Month — and every month of the year — it is vital to help destigmatize getting mental health support when it is needed.


May is Mental Health Awareness Month in the US, and we have all seen the well-intended sentiments and gestures this time of year that can ring hollow for some working in health care. A table full of pizzas is offered to nurses who do not have time to eat due to staffing shortages. Doctors who are expected to see more patients in less time get free pens stamped with their health system’s logo. Clinic staff receiving pay cuts see inspiration-themed posters freshly mounted on the walls. Hospital workers stressed near their breaking points get commemorative medals.

Many of us have made such missteps and may have seen the resulting disillusionment and disaffection that is made more complicated by the pervasive threats to clinician mental health. Given this reality, it can be paralyzing for employers to determine how best to support employees. But any health care organization can take important steps to support mental health. For example, regardless of organization size or resources, one meaningful and achievable action is to remove job and credentialing application-related barriers to clinicians seeking mental health care.

Most health care organizations ask clinical applicants — including nurses, doctors, respiratory therapists, podiatrists, and pharmacists — if they have or have had a mental health diagnosis or have ever sought mental health care even if having that diagnosis has not in any way affected their ability to do their job. Employers originally asked such questions in the misguided belief that clinicians with a mental health diagnosis would worsen patient care.

There is no evidence that these questions improve quality or safety, but their presence on job and credentialing applications deters clinicians from seeking and receiving mental health care. This worry may seem misplaced, but it is unsurprising given that clinicians cannot practice without going through these processes.

When health care organizations remove these questions from their job and credentialing applications it helps physicians, nurses, and other clinicians overcome this common barrier to receiving care. When taking this step, our organizations can also add an explicit statement of support for people seeking the care they need. An expert consensus group from the Institute for Healthcare Improvement (IHI) Leadership Alliance developed this example: “It is common for clinicians to feel overwhelmed from time to time and to seek help when appropriate. We emphasize the importance of well-being and appropriate treatment and support for all health conditions.”

A recent high-profile initiative to remove these care-deterring questions from license applications came out of Massachusetts, where every hospital, health system, and local health plan is eliminating such questions. Smaller, local successes are crucial, and Mental Health Awareness Month is the perfect time to start.

If you are unsure where to begin, you do not have to go it alone. Join colleagues across the country working to reduce barriers to clinicians seeking mental health care. Use the tools developed by and for clinicians as part of the IHI Leadership Alliance Help Health Care Heal Coalition to educate peers, professional society members, medical boards, and health care institutions about these issues. The Coalition’s publicly available resources include a sample email to send to your medical staff office or credentialing committee recommending this change. There are also talking points, a slide presentation with speaker notes, an FAQ document, and references supporting this work.

All health care organizations can help physicians, nurses, and other clinicians overcome barriers to seeking and receiving mental health care. Tools are available right now to help you make this meaningful change before this Mental Health Awareness Month has passed.

Eileen Barrett, MD, MPH, practices internal medicine on the Navajo Nation.

If you or someone you know may be considering suicide or are in crisis, please call or text 988 to reach the Suicide & Crisis Lifeline.

You may also be interested in:

One Way to Stop Stigmatizing Physicians Receiving Mental Health Care