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Certain types of new doctors have higher risk for depression, study finds

The stress and intensity of the profession may make the condition more common

Sad or depressed medical worker
Photo (c) ER Productions - Getty Images
A new study conducted by researchers from Michigan Medicine explored mental health struggles among professionals in the medical community.

According to their findings, certain types of first-year doctors – surgical residents and members of sexual minorities – may have a higher risk of developing depression. The report pulled data from two recent studies, both from teams at the University of Michigan, that explored medical professionals’ mental health struggles. 

Surgical interns have higher depression risk

The first study looked at first-year surgical interns. The researchers analyzed data from 12,400 interns involved in the Intern Health Study between 2016 and 2020. Interns were surveyed about their mental health at the start of their training and then at several points throughout their journeys. 

While the surgical interns started their programs with lower average rates of depression than other medical professionals, this trend didn’t last long. Even for those with no mental health struggles at the start of intern training, depression symptoms popped up in more than 30% of the surgical interns. For those who had developed depression during this time, they were nearly 65% as likely to maintain those symptoms beyond their first year of training. 

Despite rising cases of depression, the interns weren’t likely to seek professional mental health services. Just 26% of those with depression reported taking care of their mental health during this time. Overall, the researchers found that surgical interns were the most likely medical specialty to develop depression during this first year of training. 

“Surgical training, especially in the United States, can be a period of intense stress, which we find is linked to new onset of depression,” said researcher Dr. Tasha Hughes. “These findings suggest a need for surgical program directors, leaders, and health systems to continue to find ways to mitigate the effects of surgical training, normalize help-seeking, make mental health support easily available, and pay special attention to those with characteristics that might put them at an increased risk.”

Higher stress for LGTBQ members

The second study analyzed data from more than 7,000 interns in the Intern Health Study from 2016 through 2018. Participants were surveyed on their mental health and also reported on their sexual orientation. 

While just over 7% of the participants reported being a member of a sexual minority -- including gay, bisexual, lesbian, or another non-heterosexual group -- depression rates were high among these interns. First-year interns who weren’t heterosexual were more likely to have high depression scores, which only got higher over time. The researchers found that the second half of the intern year was the hardest for non-heterosexual doctors. 

“These results indicate that interns who are part of sexual minority groups may experience unique workplace stressors leading to a widening disparity in mental health,” said researcher Tejal Patel.

“This is important to note because as physicians become more depressed, this can lead to greater risk of medical errors and attrition from medicine. As a result, it may be hard for sexual minority patients to find a physician with whom they can relate, and who will be the right fit for them.” 

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