‘Never underestimate the power of a GP’: Dr Daniel Byrne’s story

Jolyon Attwooll

2/06/2022 2:45:46 PM

In support of CrazySocks4Docs, the Chair of RACGP South Australia and Northern Territory shares his own mental health struggles and how he coped.

Dr Daniel Byrne
Dr Daniel Byrne believes attitudes to mental health have changed since he first became a GP.

Content warning: This article contains references to suicide.

Dr Daniel Byrne did not recognise the warning signs the first time he was struggling with his mental health.
It was back in the early 1990s, towards the start of his GP career, when ‘burnout’ was not a widely used phrase.
In retrospect, however, that is how Dr Byrne sees it.

‘I was working too hard, but I didn’t realise I was working too hard,’ he told newsGP.
‘I was probably doing the equivalent of what you might call 12 sessions a week now with evenings and weekends.’
Dr Byrne says he would drive to work feeling grumpy and irritated by his patients, a situation he now describes as ‘a red flag’.
When his wife expressed her concern, Dr Byrne says he took her feedback on board and agreed to see a GP.
As a result, he took time off and made some changes, although he did not feel he was able to be open about his mental health at the time.
‘I had to make up an excuse as to why I wasn’t working,’ he said. ‘I hid it.’
While he was able to recover, there were darker times to come. In 1997, Dr Byrne’s mother took her own life.
‘She had long history of mental health problems,’ Dr Byrne said. ‘That was obviously terrible, but I kept working and thought I was dealing with it.
‘It wasn’t until about six months later that I did start to really feel the effects of that, that I hadn’t dealt with it properly.’
Once again, Dr Byrne says it was advice from people around him – his family, friends and colleagues – that proved vital.
‘You think that you’re a doctor and you’re invincible, that you’ve seen lots of bad things and helped a lot of patients through their mental health problems.
‘But when it happens to yourself, you often lack the insight. When you’re getting that feedback, listen to it.’
A GP consultation led to a referral to a mental health specialist, which helped Dr Byrne through – and he strongly encourages any doctor in a similar position to seek professional help.
‘Don’t be embarrassed,’ he said. ‘You don’t have to do a mental health care plan under Medicare, you can do it privately if you want to.’
While there is no getting away from the nature of a stressful job, he says the importance of balance is more widely recognised than it used to be.
‘I don’t know if the average patient realises how much we worry about them,’ he said. ‘Things usually do turn out alright, but you may have woken up in the middle of the night worrying about them.
‘I think every GP has experienced that. Some of these things just come with the territory. But how do you balance that out with social life, and personal life and family life? I think it’s important.’
Dr Byrne thinks he now has the balance much better than when he started out, setting aside time for exercise and family – although he acknowledges it took some time for him to reach that point.
He recalls making a conscious decision to make changes to get the right mix when his children were at school.
‘I wrote a letter to the patients, that I was not going to work weekends anymore, I was going to watch my children play sport,’ he recalled.
‘I was actually really surprised how positively that was taken by the patients and the community.
‘[They said] “Yeah, of course, that’s great, you never get this time again.” So I am really glad I did that.
‘I hope that these days, the younger doctors are better at doing all this for themselves. Maybe I’m a bit of an old dinosaur.’
Dr Byrne is also pleased the stigma around discussing mental health is less than it was early on in his career.
‘If I had to take time off now for my own mental health, I’d be open about it,’ he said.
It is one of the reasons he feels able to talk to newsGP and also why he is a firm believer in CrazySocks4Docs.
As well as donning his own eye-catching pair, Dr Byrne says his practice is sponsoring a CrazySocks4Docs breakfast in Adelaide.
‘I think it brings out into the open that the medical profession has its own stresses,’ he said. ‘It makes it a bit light-hearted, an opportunity to talk about it.’
There is another point that Dr Byrne wishes to emphasise: the capacity of GPs to help their own.
‘My thanks go out to those two GPs who helped me,’ he said.
‘Never underestimate the power you have as a GP just by listening to a colleague, offering a clear path forward and a safe space to have a good cry.’

In support of CrazySocks4Docs day, the college is selling five different pairs of socks out of the RACGP Shop, with all proceeds from sock sales donated to Beyond Blue.

 Mental health support for GPs
For immediate support, you can call Lifeline 13 11 14, or Beyond Blue 1300 22 46 36.
The RACGP also has extensive self-care and mental health resources for GPs published on its website.
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A.Prof Christopher David Hogan   3/06/2022 11:07:49 AM

In a way it was easier for me but I share Daniel's experience.
I went out for a regular walk one day, had an angina attack , ended up in hospital & returned home 3 weeks later after CABGs.
I made major changes to my workload & lifestyle but still had trouble recovering.
My family, my medical colleagues & my GP supported me through rough times as I dealt with my physical & mental health. It is easier now than it was but relapses are part of life & I know my GP & their practice colleagues are always there.
I am incredibly grateful.