View from the Ground, by Dr Kathryn Hayman
Over the past few years, I have become passionate about support services for two things—domestic abuse and mental ill health—as a result of both personal experiences and witnessing the struggles of others.
Several years ago, I reached a state of complete physical and mental exhaustion termed ‘burnout with secondary depression’. It was hardly surprising considering the circumstances—40 hours of GP work over 3 days per week around life with a lively toddler and baby, which made the remaining 4 days a rollercoaster of sleep‑deprived childcare and housework. These challenges were further exacerbated by a chronic physical health condition.
Doctors are supposed to be infinitely ‘resilient’, and the stigma attached to mental health issues may mean that some are reluctant to seek help. However, I knew I couldn’t go on like that. I contacted the fabulous NHS Practitioner Health service,1 trusting its confidential, career-specific support to be nonjudgemental and empathetic. Steadily, I returned to my former self, and adjusted my lifestyle to try and prevent a recurrence of burnout. Everything was going well until my life was transformed by domestic abuse.
Going through a situation like this is unimaginably distressing. A victim’s self-esteem is in tatters, and they are rendered extremely vulnerable; in some cases, they may also be living with the consequences of physical injury. In addition, domestic abuse may not end after separation, especially when children are involved. There are so many difficult and painful aspects, from the grief of the broken family to negative impacts on a victim’s health, finances, home life, and career.
There is a misconception that doctors do not experience domestic abuse, which can feel invalidating. In addition, anxiety about potential negative impacts on a doctor’s career may lead to a reluctance to seek support. Furthermore, abusers can threaten a doctor’s professional status by reporting them to the General Medical Council under false pretences.
As a result of my experiences, I have learnt an immense amount about domestic abuse, its impacts, and how to handle, and not handle, certain situations.
Mental ill health and domestic abuse have important parallels and are often inextricably connected: both cause emotional distress, impact on personal and professional life, and carry perceived stigma and shame. People who don’t know how to deal with this may withdraw, which contributes to their isolation. Victims can feel desperately alone, and have no access to support when they need it most.
After my experience of burnout, I set up two online mental health peer support groups: one for medics in general (www.facebook.com/groups/medicsmentalhealthsupportuk), and one specifically for GPs (www.facebook.com/groups/gpsmentalhealthsupportuk). Since then, the crisis faced by the NHS has worsened, and many doctors are struggling increasingly as a result.
Subsequently, in response to the dearth of accessible support for doctors experiencing domestic abuse, I launched the Domestic abuse support for doctors website, which features useful resources on domestic abuse and a peer support group. I am also providing one-to-one support sessions to those in need, and I hope to develop a comprehensive, team‑based service to build a much‑needed safe space for doctors who are victims of domestic abuse.