Last month, we learned that 3 more successful elite college athletes died by suicide. The rising suicide rate among certain groups is a frightening reality that continues to cause alarm not only in our communities but in the health care space as well.
Over the last 2 years, the national conversation about mental health has exploded as the COVID-19 pandemic both brought to light and exacerbated how common mental health issues such as anxiety and depression are among people of all ages and backgrounds.
President Biden’s announcement of a strategy to address our national mental health crisis during his March State of the Union Address elevated the critical need to attack this problem from multiple angles, including supporting the mental well-being of our health care workforce. Not long after the White House announced its commitment to mental health, the president signed the Dr. Lorna Breen Health Care Provider Protection Act, which will authorize grants for programs that offer behavioral health services for frontline health care workers.
As both a clinically practicing PA and a director at a large academic health care system, I have been incredibly encouraged by this forward momentum. Yet, I know the medical community has a long way to go.
For many health care providers, the fear of speaking up is still very real. Often, this fear is driven by concerns of negative impact on our careers — from feelings of shame and failure to judgment from colleagues to punitive actions from medical boards. The fear is palpable, and it is real.
I know this fear well, as I faced it head-on when I chose to talk openly about my own struggles with anxiety and depression. Ultimately, I made the choice to speak up about my own experiences, and that decision was one of the best I have ever made. Being open about my own challenges has made me a stronger person, a better leader, and a better PA. I hope it has also made me a source of support and encouragement to my colleagues who are feeling the same way.
However, health care providers need more than an open national dialogue, encouragement from their peers, and studies that reinforce how widespread mental health concerns are. We need commonsense laws and policies that will pave the way for health care providers to get the help they need, protect their privacy, and give them assurance that their jobs will not be jeopardized when they are open about their mental health concerns.
Health care is a career of service. We have been taught to always give to others before ourselves, but we cannot continue denying our own needs if our ultimate goal is to heal. It’s also a career that demands substantial commitments of both time and money. As someone who has spent more than 20 years studying the practice of medicine and paying off my education — I can attest to how important it is to continue doing what I love to do as a PA. No PA or any health care provider should ever feel at risk of having everything they have worked toward stripped away because they, like their patients, are human beings with real needs.
The good news for the PA profession is that the 2022 AAPA Salary Report found that 79% of PAs reported being optimistic about the current state of the PA profession. However, PAs are continuing to face burnout with 46% of PAs reporting they are experiencing symptoms including 14% who are experiencing severe symptoms such as physical and emotional exhaustion.
Clearly, we can do more to address mental health within our own profession — and to be a part of the national efforts to expand patient access to behavioral and mental health. That is why AAPA is putting the mental health of PAs and our patients at the forefront of our first in-person conference since 2019.
Our AAPA 2022 conference will include a wide range of programming and events focused on addressing patient and provider mental health, including an intimate conversation between Emmy Award-winning journalist Jane Pauley and world champion gymnast Simone Biles, who will discuss their own experiences with mental health challenges. The conversation between Pauley and Biles will not only help PAs navigate their own intense professional and personal pressures but will shed additional light on the patient experience of mental health and the feelings of both shame and vulnerability a patient may be experiencing.
We will also host an event with the Indianapolis Colts to explore lessons learned from the organization’s Kicking the Stigma campaign and a symposium bringing together thought leaders from across health professions to discuss how to best implement change to improve the well-being of clinicians on health care teams as well as support students obtaining their medical education.
My hope is that PAs attending the conference this year will have a renewed sense of commitment to solving this national crisis and be empowered to take action so that we don’t lose another friend, colleague, athlete, or family member to this terrible and treatable disease.
Jennifer M. Orozco, DMSc, PA-C, DFAAPA
AAPA President and Chair of the Board