A Concept That Rebrands Mental Illness For Professionals

By Nicolas Badre, MD, Clinical Psychiatry News, March 5, 2020
Over the past years, I have had the opportunity to attend countless lectures on burnout provided by colleagues spanning across many fields in mental health and health care in general. The talks generally follow a common narration: 1. Your work is important and meaningful to many. 2. Your work requires significant training, dedication, and passion. 3. While you get personal gratification from your work, it does come with a cost. 4. This cost can be great and can affect you physically and mentally. 5. This cost is called burnout.

Burnout is described as irritability (poor mood), low energy, poor concentration, difficulty appreciating enjoyable things (anhedonia), and poor sleep, among other symptoms, as a result of work stress. At this point in the lectures, I usually ask whomever is sitting next to me: “I came in late, is this a lecture on depression?” to which the answer is typically “No! Of course not, this is about ‘burnout’ not mental illness.” And here lies a concern about burnout: Is burnout a concept describing depression that we have repackaged to protect professionals from the stigmatization of mental illness? Does our tendency not to characterize patients’ struggles as burnout stigmatize them – and imply that their employment is not challenging to cause burnout?

According to the literature, a range of factors affects burnout in professionals: lack of control, unclear job expectations, dysfunctional workplace dynamics, extremes of activity, lack of social support, work-life imbalance. Contrary to depression, burnout is not caused by neurobiological problems. Patients with burnout don’t have chemical imbalances, hyperactive default mode networks, or overactive amygdalas. Burnout is caused by social factors and affects dedicated, caring, and exceptional individuals who have been pushed outside their window of tolerance.

Literature suggests a variety of remedies to treat burnout: Reevaluate your employment, discuss occupational concerns with your supervisor, discuss with colleagues, receive help from your social support system, and seek human resources services. In addition, experts recommend engaging in relaxing activities, improving your sleep hygiene, exercising regularly, and participating in mindfulness to reduce symptoms. Contrary to depression, burnout does not require individuals to fix their maladaptive thoughts or discover inadequate unconscious beliefs that may be affecting their work. Contrary to depression, burnout does not require the rebalancing of neurochemistry using psychotropic medication.

The concept of burnout engenders concerns. I fear that it divides physicians and patients into two different classes and thus further stigmatizes those with mental illness. It implies that we physicians are somehow immune from mental illness and its consequences. We do not suffer from brain abnormalities, we do not require mind-altering medications, we are not “mentally ill.” Contrarily, at times it might be implied that patients’ jobs are not important enough to cause burnout; if they feel sad, anhedonic, have poor energy and poor sleep, it is because they have mental illness. Their brains are inadequate and flawed. But for physicians, our brains are intact, just pushed beyond human capabilities.

I should point out that I do not think that burnout experts believe or desire to promote such concepts. I am not aware of burnout experts championing physician exceptionalism or promoting the stigmatization of patients. I believe that this problem is an unintended consequence, a side effect, of the idea of burnout itself.
Another concern I have is that the concept of burnout may actually hinder physicians from seeking necessary and appropriate professional services to address symptoms. Interestingly, most lectures I have attended on burnout have not discussed the concerning number of physicians who end their lives by suicide. Burnout can give physicians the impression that their problems are social and occupational, thus not requiring a medical solution or intervention. There was a time when I argued against the removal of the grief exclusion in the DSM; I worried that we were pathologizing natural emotional reactions to trauma. However, I have come to realize that, if someone is debilitated by depression, seeking professional help should not be predicated on the trigger. As such, I would recommend the vast number of physicians who state burnout in surveys to seriously consider the possibility that they may, in fact, be suffering from mental illness. We encourage our patients to seek help and speak out against stigmatization; isn’t it time that we as professionals should not be afraid to do the same?
I have concerns about the concept of burnout, but I certainly do not think that we should get rid of the idea. On the contrary, I applaud this attempt at de-pathologizing, and de-medicalizing human suffering. As many have argued with more or less success and controversy of the years, many emotional problems are not best suited to be treated by psychotropic medication or even psychiatry. I think that psychiatry should embrace paradigms that include social and occupational constructs of emotional pain, not rooted in diseases and/or chemical imbalances. Such paradigms should, furthermore, not be limited to certain professions or life circumstances. We are all affected by human suffering. Access and willingness to appropriate care or support should not be granted only to those with a mental illness diagnosis.

Burnout is a promising idea that challenges our conceptualization of mental disorders. Burnout brings a humanity to emotional pain frequently lost in the medicalized diagnoses of the DSM. Psychiatry should seriously consider opening its door to nonmedicalized understanding of psychological suffering. By opening those doors, we begin to create a less medicalized construct for human suffering. We begin to create one based on shared human experience.

[Note: While the author makes an important observation as to how stigma, even with the Psychiatric profession, can cause an artificial distinction between “depression” and “burnout,” he perhaps inadvertently perpetuates that stigma by finding “humanity” and “medicalized diagnoses” to be mutually exclusive.  They of course, should not be.]

Dr. Badre is a forensic psychiatrist in San Diego and an expert in correctional mental health. He holds teaching positions at the University of California, San Diego, and the University of San Diego. He teaches medical education, psychopharmacology, ethics in psychiatry, and correctional care. Among his writings is chapter 7 in the book “Critical Psychiatry: Controversies and Clinical Implications” (Springer, 2019).
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