In support of CrazySocks4Docs, the chairman of RACGP South Australia and Northern Territory shares his own mental health struggles and how he coped.
Dr Daniel Byrne didn’t recognize the warning signs the first time he had mental health issues.
This was in the early 1990s, towards the start of his GP career, when the term “burnout” was not very common.
In retrospect, however, that’s how Dr. Byrne sees it.
“I was working too hard, but I didn’t realize I was working too hard,” he said. newsGP.
“I was probably doing the equivalent of what you might call 12 sessions a week now with evenings and weekends.”
Dr Byrne says he would come to work feeling grumpy and irritated by his patients, a situation he now describes as ‘a red flag’.
When his wife expressed concern, Dr Byrne said he had taken her comments on board and agreed to see a GP.
As a result, he took some time off and made some changes, though he didn’t feel able to be open about his mental health at the time.
“I had to make up an excuse for why I wasn’t working,” he said. “I hid it.”
Although he was able to recover, there were darker times ahead. In 1997, Dr. Byrne’s mother committed suicide.
“She had a long history of mental health issues,” Dr Byrne said. “It was obviously terrible, but I kept working and thought I was dealing with it.
“It wasn’t until about six months later that I really started to feel the effects of that, that I hadn’t treated it properly.”
Once again, Dr Byrne says it was the advice of those around him – family, friends and colleagues – that proved essential.
“You think you’re a doctor and you’re invincible, you’ve seen a lot of bad things and helped a lot of patients through their mental health issues.
“But when it happens to you, you often lack insight. When you receive these comments, listen to them.
A consultation with a GP led to a referral to a mental health specialist, which got Dr Byrne through – and he strongly encourages any doctor in a similar situation to seek professional help.
“Don’t be embarrassed,” he said. “You are not required to follow a mental health care plan under Medicare, you can do so privately if you wish.”
While there’s no escaping the stressful nature of a job, he says the importance of balance is more widely recognized than before.
“I don’t know if the average patient realizes how much we care about them,” he said. “Things are generally going well, but you may have woken up in the middle of the night worrying about them.
“I think all GPs have experienced this. Some of these things just come with the territory. But how do you balance that with social life, personal life, and family life? I think it is important.
Dr Byrne thinks he now has a much better balance than when he started, setting aside time for exercise and family – although he admits it took him a while to get to this point .
He remembers making a conscious decision to make changes to get the right suit when his kids were in school.
“I wrote a letter to the patients, that I was no longer going to work on weekends, I was going to watch my children play sports,” he recalls.
“I was really really surprised at how positively it was taken by patients and the community.
‘[They said] “Yeah sure, that’s great, you’ll never have that time again.” So I’m really glad I did that.
“I hope these days young doctors are better at doing all of this on their own. Maybe I’m a bit of an old dinosaur.
Dr. Byrne is also pleased that the stigma attached to discussions of mental health is less than it was early in his career.
“If I had to take time off now for my own mental health, I would be open about it,” he said.
This is one of the reasons why he feels able to talk to newsGP and also why he strongly believes in CrazySocks4Docs.
As well as donning his own eye-catching pair, Dr Byrne says his firm is sponsoring a CrazySocks4Docs breakfast in Adelaide.
“I think it puts it in the open that the medical profession has its own constraints,” he said. “It makes things a bit lighthearted, an opportunity to talk about it.”
There is another point on which Dr Byrne wishes to emphasize: the capacity of general practitioners to help their own.
“My thanks go to these two GPs who helped me,” he said.
“Never underestimate the power you have as a GP just by listening to a colleague, providing a clear path and a safe space to have a good cry.”
Mental health support for GPs
For immediate assistance you can call Lifeline 13 11 14 or Beyond Blue 1300 22 46 36.
The RACGP also has extensive self-care and mental health resources for GPs. published on his website.
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