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Creating a Clearing to Talk about Mental Health

Photograph of Dr. John McHugh as a child sitting alongside his father.
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My own father started to show signs of bipolar disorder when I was 10, and his illness worsened in cycles of mania followed by months of severe depression. He talked frequently of ending his life through my high school years until he died by suicide when I was nineteen.

Unlike others who have suffered with cancer or heart disease, opening up and sharing about personal struggles or family struggles with mental health carries a great deal of shame and stigma. I worried about my own risk but was hesitant to share my family's struggles with both bipolar disorder and the related disease of alcoholism. As a medical student, I began to share this past. First with close friends, then in discussion groups, and finally with patients. Sometimes, my openness would "create a clearing" for others to share their own struggles and their family's struggles.

Physicians have a higher rate of suicide than those in other professions. The stress and sleep deprivation we obstetrician–gynecologists undergo elevates our risk. I've been blessed that during and after high-stress episodes in my life I've entered counseling, doubled down on my own sleep and lifestyle, and openly shared what I am going through with colleagues. My hope is to keep up these habits and "create a clearing" for others to share. I've shared a picture of myself with my father, and hope his suffering can help others.


Dr. McHugh is an obstetrician–gynecologist at Huntington Hospital in Pasadena, California.

Disclaimer: The thoughts and opinions in the Frontline Voices initiative reflect experiences of individual ACOG members and do not represent official organizational opinions of ACOG.

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