This week is Mental Health Awareness Week. It is a vital time to spread awareness and knowledge about mental health and the impact it has on many lives around the world. Run by UK charity Mental Health Foundation, the theme this year is stress.
Stress in itself is not a mental health diagnosis but it is an important factor that can lead to anxiety, depression, self-harm and even suicide. It also has physical health implications, such as an increased risk of cardiovascular disease.
Reading about stress made me recall my days as an intern medical doctor in a rural South African hospital, and the stress that I endured in the overwhelming hospital environment. In the beginning I could not recognise that the physical and mental symptoms I was experiencing were related to stress and burnout syndrome. I found myself exhibiting signs of:
• Physical and mental fatigue
• Depressed mood
• Detachment from my work and patients
• Sense of failure
After talking to my peers and doing some of my own research, I realised that I had burnout syndrome. I had never been prepared or warned about it as young professional. I also learned that as a female doctor I had 60% greater chance of experiencing burnout stress than my male colleagues. This was is related to gender-based expectations and societal pressures that women experience on a regular basis.
Burnout syndrome is a form of chronic stress. It is an alarm clock to a more serious problem and needs to be addressed as early as possible. In my instance, I spoke to my senior doctors and supervisors about how I was feeling. They helped me reduce the levels of stress I’d been feeling by finding me additional assistance for my workload. I started to focus on lifestyle changes to alleviate the symptoms such as eating healthily, exercising, and talking to someone about the frustrations I was dealing with at work.
We need to have active dialogues about stress and burnout. Ask yourself if you experience any of the symptoms mentioned above. Involve others in that self-reflection. Start this week – discuss amongst your friends, your work peers and your family. Let’s engage in conversation so that we can recognise stress and allow ourselves to receive the help and treatment we need to handle it.