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#StoptheStigmaEM campaign broaches mental health stigma for emergency physicians

Various social media posts featuring the hashtag #StopTheStigmaEM – a campaign advocating for increased mental health awareness among emergency medicine physicians – are pictured. The October campaign was led by physicians across the nation, including at UCLA. (Photo illustration by Joseph Jimenez/Photo editor)

By Yashila Suresh

Nov. 14, 2023 10:16 p.m.

This post was updated Nov. 15 at 1:47 p.m. 

Emergency medicine physicians across the country – including some at UCLA – launched a social media campaign in October that aimed to raise awareness about mental health and burnout in emergency medicine.

#StoptheStigmaEM, run by a coalition of emergency medicine organizations and physicians, is a campaign held each October to fight mental health stigma in medicine by providing resources and community. The campaign was launched alongside a study published in October about mental health in emergency medicine.

Dr. Amanda Deutsch, the first author of the paper and chair of #StoptheStigmaEM, said the campaign sought to normalize and acknowledge the importance of mental health care for physicians.

“We hope to lower the barriers to seeking mental health care, … to help protect against any of those repercussions that may be associated or feared with receiving mental health care,” said Deutsch, who is also the director of wellness at Thomas Jefferson University Hospital’s emergency department.

Dr. Al’ai Alvarez, a co-author of the paper and director of well-being for Stanford University’s emergency medicine department, said though the campaign was designed with emergency medicine in mind, it applies to everyone in medicine across all disciplines.

He added that the initiative was inspired by movements such as National Physician Suicide Awareness Day, with the hope of expanding resources for physicians coping with a wider range of mental health struggles.

“My goal is to create an environment where we see doctors as just as human as everybody else,” Alvarez said. “Oftentimes, we think of doctors and we look at doctors as this persona that doesn’t get sick, that can handle anything, but the reality is we go home also struggling about processing the experiences that we had.”

Alvarez added that emergency medicine physicians have the highest burnout rate across all specialties. Part of this burnout is attributed to the violence emergency medicine physicians are vulnerable to, with 55% of physicians reporting that they have been physically assaulted, Deutsch said.

Deutsch said while she doesn’t know how many emergency medicine physicians the campaign is truly reaching, she hopes it has helped at least one. With social media, she added that the campaign is able to reach more physicians who are unable to schedule time to attend events regarding mental health.

“I hope we’re reaching someone that maybe felt like they couldn’t go on one more shift, and they’re acknowledging that’s okay,” Deutsch said. “I hope we’re enabling people to find those next steps to a safe way to have a career, not just a job.”

Dr. Charlene Gaw, a fourth-year emergency medicine resident at UCLA-Ronald Reagan/Olive View, said prioritizing mental health care for emergency medicine physicians – who see trauma on a daily basis – is vital to ensure better patient treatment.

“When you are burnt out, you have less emotional capacity for patients, and you have less patience for patients, which I think then harms patient care,” Gaw said.

But the stigma around physicians’ mental health can also come from the hospital environment, with physicians working in a volatile, uncertain, complex and ambiguous environment, Alvarez said.

Deutsch added emergency medicine physicians are expected to handle everything and anything that comes their way at all times, which can be frustrating and demanding.

Alvarez added that both undergraduate and medical students are asked to consistently perform without making mistakes, which can be damaging to their self-esteem and more. Campaigns like #StoptheStigmaEM normalize the fact that everyone is human and makes mistakes, he said.

For incoming emergency medicine residents and medical students interested in pursuing emergency medicine, Gaw said that while the stigma around mental health still exists – particularly with older physicians – she feels that things are changing for the better, with more individuals opening up and sharing their experiences.

“The more of us that … talk about it, it becomes more mainstream and normalized that maybe I should talk to somebody, maybe I should reach out to somebody, maybe I should take a break to take care of myself,” Alvarez said.

Both Alvarez and Deutsch said the future of the campaign lies in community growth. Alvarez added that with just one month of intervention, they saw more physicians opening up and reaching out using the available resources.

Ultimately, seeing the campaign’s increasing reach has been extremely rewarding, Deutsch said.

“It’s worthwhile … when you see that one person in a chat and a webinar connect to what someone just said and feel like they are being seen,” she said. “Their voice does matter.”

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Yashila Suresh
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