The Courage and Strength of Getting Help For Your Mental Health. Matt Carroll, M.D., Shares His Story
By Matthew Carroll, M.D., Associate Chief Quality Officer
In the wake of the tragic loss of Blake Palmer earlier this year, I’m sure that many of us are taking a moment for self-reflection and some of us are likely making some needed changes in our lives. No matter how well we knew or didn’t know Blake, his death, especially the manner of his death, impacts us all. I’m heartbroken when I think about Blake and his wife, children, family, friends and patients who all loved him so much.
Losing Blake has caused me to consider two important questions: What are my priorities in life and what am I doing to take care of myself? When it came to the second question I realized the answer was “not enough” and so I called a psychologist and made a commitment to have regular therapy.
I wouldn’t describe myself as an anxious or depressed person, but I also don’t think you need to meet those criteria to benefit from therapy. No matter what our specific roles are, we each work in a stressful environment that takes its toll over time. When I talk to others about what I do, I like to focus on the positive aspects of medicine – the incredible privilege it is to be a physician, the lives touched, the connections we make with our patients and families, and the dedicated people we have the privilege to work alongside. But there is a side of medicine that I often don’t talk about – the suffering I must witness (made even worse by our inability to relieve it at times), the bad news I must deliver, the mistakes I sometimes make, and the patients or families that I can never seem to please, just to name a few. These stresses have been made even worse by COVID.
Because this is what I do every day, part of me has just accepted it as the way it is. It is easy to become numb to the impact it has and just shrug it off as part of the job. I don’t think I truly appreciate the enormity of what I go through every day and the toll that has to take. The toll it takes on each of us is different – the nights we can’t sleep as well as we used to, the more irritable or impatient we are with our friends and family, or perhaps withdrawing from things we used to enjoy. Because the stresses I encounter happen day in and day out, there is no one dramatic single occurrence that leads to a big change in my personality or how I interact with others. Instead, the impact is more insidious and can be harder to appreciate. I wonder if I compared the “me of now” to the “me of five years ago”, would the differences be more apparent?
Mental health has long had a stigma in our society and also in our profession. Many of us view it as a sign of weakness in a profession that doesn’t seem to allow for weakness. I know that is how I looked at it nine years ago when I first saw a psychiatrist. Up until that point, life seemed to be good. I was just finishing up residency when my marriage was turned upside down and I was going through a divorce. Even at the time, I didn’t think I needed help. I thought I could get through it on my own, albeit in a terribly painful and isolated way. It wasn’t until a friend pushed me to get help, that I made an appointment with a psychiatrist. I continued to see a therapist over the next couple of years as I worked through all the emotions that come with something like divorce. It was helpful to have someone who I could be open with, who wouldn’t judge me and who could help me process the multitude of emotions and pain I was struggling with.
Looking back, admitting to myself that I needed help and actually taking the step of making the call and setting up the appointment was hard to do, but one of the best decisions I made. It wasn’t a sign of weakness to do that. In fact, it took courage and strength.
Fast forward to today. Even though I’m happy with where I find myself, there are still things in life and work that are difficult. That is why I picked up the phone and made an appointment with a therapist and why I plan to continue regular appointments going forward. My view of mental health has certainly evolved over the past decade. I wonder why we try to separate it from the rest of health care? I go to my PCP every year for a check-up. When I feel sick, I make an appointment to be seen. When my PCP refers me to another physician for a problem, I make the appointment because I care about my personal health. When I went to a neurologist a couple of years ago and had an MRI, it wasn’t a sign of weakness. It was me taking care of myself. Why do we look at mental health differently? Being sensitive to my mental well-being and doing whatever I can to process the difficulties of my chosen profession helps me be a better physician, a better husband, a better father and happier person.
When Jason Terk, M.D., recently gave a talk on how to get through a Texas Medical Board Complaint, I was amazed at the number of people who shared at the end of his presentation they also have received TMB complaints against them in the past. It got me thinking about how we each seem to suffer silently. How we think we are the only ones that have adverse events, make mistakes, are involved with lawsuits or that we are the only ones that sometimes struggle with the enormous weight of what we do every day. When I miss something that one of my partners picks up the following day, I’m left with not only the guilt of having not made the diagnosis the day before but then thinking that I’m somehow less of a doctor than my partner. We imagine that everyone else is a better doctor and is somehow able to hold things together better than we are, but that isn’t true.
None of us are perfect. All of us are human. Even though we may be good at putting on a mask that hides our struggles from everyone else, we each have our own struggles and we each fall short of expectations from time to time.
We have to start being OK with our humanity. We will all make mistakes. We will all have a patient family that doesn’t like us, no matter what we do. We will all miss a diagnosis. We will all fall short of perfection and we will all need help at times getting through life’s difficulties. What that help looks like is different for each of us – for some, it is a shoulder to cry on, or a person to share a beer with after work and maybe a therapist to help process what we go through. When we suffer silently, our pain is made even worse by isolation.
We have to stop thinking we are the only ones that struggle, we have to be ok with reaching out to someone else for help and we have to be ok with starting to let our guards down and letting others see our imperfections and our humanity.