Articles and Case Studies

Broken Doctor, Broken System

30 Nov 2017

by Dr Sarah Newman

broken doctor

I am a doctor with a mental illness. There, I’ve said it. This is something I am no longer ashamed of, as mastery has come with my remission.

But at the times of greatest need, I was unable to acknowledge my illness even to myself.

I won’t detail the stressors on junior doctors because, by now, most of you would be familiar with that perfect storm. Although these issues were present in my case, they weren’t the only cause or contributing factor. The real let down was when I became vulnerable and felt unsupported by the medical system to remain well, rehabilitate and return to the vocation I loved.

Death, disease and disabilities formed my medical curriculum. Dealing with these things didn’t. There was no acknowledgement that feeling emotional or overwhelmed might be valid and understandable, or even the norm. The good doctor was impervious – so I must be broken.

This meant I hid when I should have been reaching out. To whom, I wasn’t even sure. Sometimes I would fall in a heap, and a job might be tacked together which would earmark me as defective and deficient. When unable to work, I heard nothing from the medical fraternity or hospital I was proud to be a part of. I never spoke to, let alone heard of, any doctor in my situation.

The dissociative experience of seeing both sides of the therapeutic relationship was profound. There is nothing like seeing your own medication chart in action. This isolation did nothing to help my perception of hopelessness, and was actively detrimental to my recovery. Returning to work was the hardest thing I ever did. In a reactive system without policies or protocols, I was scared every day to fail what seemed to be my only chance.

But over time, with support and luck, I’ve become better. I would not change this experience as it has shaped who I am today. I’m inspired to share my story so others might not feel so alone, and may see that they too can recover. I’ve been allowed a deeper understanding of my patients which enriches my work. I’m thankful every day for the ability to practise, as well as the great number of privileges and pleasures I have beyond medicine.

Relapse is a realistic possibility, and sometimes I still face challenges. I’ve worked hard at improving my personal resilience, thinking patterns and work-life balance. I have made rational decisions about how and where I practise and what I can expect of myself.

I hope I have the insight now to reach out for help early. But for all of us, seeking support must be acceptable and accessible. It’s one thing to focus on doctors’ resilience, but this is futile unless we also recognise that everyone has a breaking point. Our medical culture needs to change, and we need a commitment to doctors’ welfare because that improves conditions for us all.

As medicine moves from illness to wellness, why not start with ourselves?

Sources of assistance

Dr Sarah Newman (MDA National Member)
General Practice Registrar


Dr Newman is the co-chair of the AMA WA Doctors in Training Welfare Subcommittee. She is also the recipient of the RACGP Award: WA Registrar of the Year 2017 and the AMA WA Camille Michener Legacy Award: Junior Doctor of the Year 2017.

Doctors Health and Wellbeing, Anaesthesia, Dermatology, Emergency Medicine, General Practice, Intensive Care Medicine, Obstetrics and Gynaecology, Ophthalmology, Pathology, Psychiatry, Radiology, Sports Medicine, Surgery, Physician, Geriatric Medicine, Cardiology, Plastic And Reconstructive Surgery, Radiation Oncology, Paediatrics, Independent Medical Assessor - IME


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