Traumatized Through Healing: The Stigmatization and Misrecognition of Trauma Among American Physicians


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Language shapes the way that we look at an issue and the words we choose to define a problem dictate how we address it. This dissertation focuses on the effects of trauma on physicians and analyzes how the professional identity of physicians fails to provide adequate solutions for coping with the damaging effects of trauma. It focuses on the popular concern over “physician burnout” and the implications of choosing to use that term to the exclusion of others. Over the last five years physician wellbeing has received a great deal of public attention. In 2016 the American Foundation for Suicide Prevention reported that approximately 300-400 physicians commit suicide every year. However, while suicide is frequently associated with mental health conditions such as depression, anxiety, and PTSD, most of the recent literature dealing with the issue has focused almost exclusively on “physician burnout”. This dissertation suggests that defining the issue exclusively as “burnout” narrows the range of contributing factors which can be considered. Concerns about trauma are overlooked in favor of discussions about work hour restrictions, paperwork, and bureaucratic red tape. While these are important topics worth considering, choosing to use language to define the problem which directs the conversation away from other important topics, like trauma, is problematic. Moreover, the focus on “burnout” places the responsibility upon individual suffering physicians and fails to hold institutions of power within the medical community accountable for their role in the situation. It also fails to acknowledge the role of the heroic myth of the doctor in preventing struggling physicians from seeking the help they need. This dissertation argues instead for the implementation of the broader categorization of physician distress in order to make space for conversations incorporating other forms of distress such as traumatization.



Physician Trauma, Physician Burnout, Physician Distress, Physician Suicide, Secondary Victim Syndrome, Vicarious Trauma, Secondary Traumatic Stress, Compassion Fatigue, Moral Injury