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11th July 2013

An Open Door

About twenty years ago, I found myself sitting in my car, parked behind a shopping precinct, in a town about twenty miles away from my busy practice.  I had no idea how I got there or why I was there.  In fact, the whole day to that point was a complete blank.

That moment was the instant I thought I had finally gone mad.  After weeks of emotional ups and downs, blank spots in my days and voices in my head, I thought I was clinically `mad` and it was just a matter of time before I would be taken away in a straight-jacket.  I managed to drive back to work to see patients after making some excuse about car problems.  The last thing I wanted to do was own up about the way I was, as I thought I would lose my registration and my living.  I also believed I was the only person in the world to be suffering this way.  I considered ways of ending the pain.

As it was, I was struggling to run a growing practice whilst helping my wife, who worked shifts as a theatre-nurse, with the responsibility of two young children.  I was burning the proverbial candle at both ends.  Then something quite amazing happened and this is the hook to the following information.  In a rare moment of quiet, I picked up a professional magazine and started to read an article by another practitioner who described the same symptoms as myself and talked about how frightened he had been.  He experienced a perceived downward spiral of `madness` and thought he was on his own with a unique problem.  However, he did seek help and the article was concerned with his sponsoring of a help-line for others who were in the same position.  I phoned the number and spoke to someone who listened to my story without judgement and made me a confidential appointment at a clinic some way from home (which helped with confidentiality) and the rest is a good history.  It turns out I was simply depressed but had been too involved in my own illness to recognise the symptoms.

Even now, in these supposedly enlightened times, there is a stigma attached to mental illness, this inhibits even members of the general public from seeking help.  For healthcare professionals the decision is fraught with even more layers of uncertainty.  The point of telling my own story is to prove that help is available to practitioners who have mental health problems, addictions or are suffering burnout and other stress related illnesses.  We are very good at helping patients but not so good at looking after ourselves!

So, how do we reach out for help?  The following information is about three different organisations that are there for both listening and constructive help.  These sources of help come from various beginnings and have their own unique stories.  It might just be that one resonates for you more than the others.

The first open door is at the BMA.  In fact, once inside there are two choices.  BMA  Counselling, this is staffed by professional telephone counselors 24 hours a day, 7 days a week. They are all members of the British Association for Counselling and Psychotherapy and are bound by strict codes of confidentiality and ethical practice. You can even choose to remain anonymous when you call.  The Doctor Advisor service runs alongside BMA Counselling giving doctors and medical students in distress or difficulty the choice of speaking in confidence to another doctor.  Once you have made contact with a particular Doctor Advisor you may contact them as many times as you feel necessary and there is no limit on how long you stay in touch for.

The next open door is an independent organisation.  The Doctors' Support Network (DSN) is a fully confidential, friendly self-help group for doctors with mental health concerns.  These concerns include stress, burnout, anxiety, depression, bipolar disorder, psychoses and eating disorders. The group believes that contact with and support from other doctors can help recovery.  All doctors in the group have themselves been troubled at some stage in their lives. This group is therefore well placed to help those who are beginning the slow process of re-establishing themselves after a breakdown or other mental crisis. The group also believes that appropriate support offered before a crisis develops helps defuse it.

Next, the British Doctors’ and Dentists' Group, formed in 1973, is a mutual support society for doctors and dentists who are recovering, or wish to recover, from addiction to, or dependency on, alcohol or other drugs.  Membership is restricted to qualified medical and dental practitioners, and medical and dental students at the discretion of local secretaries, and normal medical ethics regarding confidentiality apply strictly within the group. There is absolutely no formality involved in joining us for a meeting - just contact the national secretary or a branch secretary (details below) with your e-mail address.  No records of your name or contact details are kept except by the local branch secretary, who will never share them with anyone under any circumstances without your express permission.

The reasons for seeking help can vary too.  You might feel a professional responsibility to honour your `duty of care` to patients and need help to address issues that affect your ability to perform.  You might seek help so as not to let down family.  You might just want to protect and honour yourself.  Most of you reading this will hopefully be doing it just out of interest.  One or two might be reading this and feeling that the open door is something you might need, in which case pick up the phone or check out the websites.

BMA Doctor`s Advisor - Call 08459 200 169 - 24 hours a day, 7 days a week


Doctor`s Support Network (DSN) –

Monday & Tuesday 8pm – 11pm

Wednesday, Thursday & Friday 8pm – 10pm

Sundays 4pm – 10pm (closed on Saturdays)

0844 395 3010


British Doctors and Dentists Group - 0779 2819 966

*All information is correct at the time of publishing. Use of this material is subject to your acceptance of our terms and conditions.

John Shapter

Dental Specialist

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