Why GPs’ self-care matters: Jono’s devastating story

Jolyon Attwooll

31/05/2022 4:18:56 PM

Dr Jonathan Morling took his own life earlier this year. His wife, Caroline, talks to newsGP about her drive to improve mental health outcomes for doctors.

Dr Jonathan Morling
Dr Jonathan Morling, who took his own life at the age of 41 earlier this year. (Image: Supplied)

Content warning: This article contains references to suicide. 

Wherever Dr Jonathan Morling went, people thought he was a wonderful GP.
Affectionately known as ‘Jono’, he had chased a childhood dream of becoming a doctor to make a difference to people’s lives.
It was a calling that took him way beyond Western Australia where he trained. He worked in a Kenyan orphanage as a younger doctor, and more recently he went to work and live in Timor Leste for a year with his family.
In Bridgetown, the rural Western Australian town where Jono had settled with his wife and three children in early 2018, his dedication once again quickly shone through.
Throughout a tight-knit community, he became known for going above and beyond for his patients; the family doctor who took joy bringing children into the world through his work as a GP obstetrician.
His Bridgetown colleague Dr Sarah Youngson saw the effect he had first hand.
‘Jono was the most beloved doctor in our community,’ Dr Youngson told newsGP.
‘He had this incredible following of patients who absolutely adored him, and quite deservedly so. He was a very, very compassionate, generous, gentle man who gave so much of himself.’
It was not just in the consulting room that Jono went above and beyond for the community.
He took to social media with a guitar to lift people’s spirits in the early stages of the pandemic; joined other volunteer firefighters; coached a local children’s soccer team, and even threw himself into the lead role in a local theatre production.
His selfless, caring nature was clear to all.
But there was another side to Jono, hidden from the outside world, including his colleagues. Jono was fighting his own, long, private battle with depression and despair.
Despite helping many patients with their mental health, Jono found it hard to reach out for support on his own behalf.
On 26 February this year, Jono took his own life. He was just 41.
For Jono’s wife Caroline, the following weeks were ‘totally devastating’ for herself and their children.
While his death had come as a shock for many, Caroline was one of the few who had seen his mental health challenges close at hand.
‘From my point of view, it wasn’t totally unexpected because he had struggled with depression for a long time,’ she told newsGP.
Better mental health outcomes
Once the raw, early grief had eased, Caroline decided to talk openly about her experience and use her voice to improve mental health outcomes for doctors.
‘As soon as Jono died, I knew that I wasn’t going to hide the fact that it was suicide,’ she said.
On a practical level, Caroline says she would like to see greater limits placed on the amount of on-call work an individual doctor can do.
She would also like to see more GPs have their own regular GP, saying her husband had only had a handful of appointments in the previous 15 years.
‘As a doctor he was used to making medical decisions for other people. I guess he decided that he didn’t want to be that vulnerable and hand over his care to someone else,’ Caroline said.
‘If he had been seeing his GP regularly and had someone to keep in touch with, to see how he’s going, things might have been different.’
In the weeks before Jono’s death, Caroline could see his work/life balance was not right, that he was taking on too much, not sleeping enough or exercising, and not able to act when she raised concerns.
‘I know that Jono’s attitude was very much, “I’m not going to focus on myself, I’m going to focus on others and look after others”,’ she said.
‘But it also meant that even when he knew he wasn’t doing very well, or even when I knew he wasn’t doing very well, he didn’t take the time to look after himself.’
Another change – and one that Caroline views as the most important of all – would be to ensure all GPs have mandatory professional supervision whatever the stage of their career.
This would not be clinical supervision. As Caroline sees it, it would mean having a peer or a mentor ‘as a way of checking in, providing support, maintaining professional and ethical boundaries and focusing on self-care’.

‘I think raising awareness around this idea of self-care is really important,’ she said.
‘If people are more self-aware, then they’ll know when they need to take some time and look after themselves.’

jono-family-article.jpgJono and Caroline Morling with their three children. (Image: Supplied)
After Jono died, Caroline spoke at a meeting about wellbeing for his colleagues and medical students, saying she hoped his death might shift the way they prioritised their own welfare.
She challenged doctors to take conscious steps to look after themselves and to choose to be vulnerable with a peer or friend or mentor and to listen to partners when they suggest they should slow down.
‘Remember that Jono was an amazing doctor, but also remember that he couldn’t be everything to everyone, and that you can’t be everything to everyone,’ she said.
‘Can I encourage you to make the choice to look after yourself and your family as well as your patients?’
While Caroline says it was difficult to be so open at first, she believes her approach is already having an effect. Medical students Jono once supervised have told her they are now taking more deliberate steps to look after themselves.
It is heartening feedback for Caroline which reinforces her resolve to keep talking.
‘Nothing can change for Jono or for our family,’ she said.
‘But if there’s the opportunity to change things for other doctors and other families, particularly for the next generation of doctors … that’s why I wanted to say something.’
‘If I don’t speak out, then who else will? I feel like it’s an important thing to do.’
CrazySocks4Docs day
Dr Youngson, Jono’s colleague, describes the impact of his death in the practice where he worked.
‘We all loved him, and he was an integral part of our team,’ she said. ‘It was a really shocking, devastating time for us all and continues to be.’
Dr Youngson is supporting the CrazySocks4Docs initiative this week as a timely reminder for doctors to prioritise their own wellbeing.

Sarah_Youngson-article.jpgJono’s colleague Dr Sarah Youngson, getting behind the CrazySocks4Docs initiative. (Image: Supplied)
The annual awareness-raising event, set up by Melbourne cardiologist Dr Geoffrey Toogood in support of doctors experiencing mental illness, takes place this Friday.
 ‘As doctors we really need to be able to safely reach out for help,’ she said.
‘I think it’s really difficult at times to acknowledge your own frailties and your own challenges, and then to know where to go.
‘A lot of doctors are not good at having their own GP and so, when you are in crisis, to know who to turn to is sometimes very difficult.’
Dr Youngson believes there are a lot of reasons, both individual and systemic, surrounding why some doctors do not seek help when they really need it.
‘I think there is also a fear of the implications in acknowledging your mental illness or struggles, that it may have implications for your professional life, and that sort of stigma around your competency and being able to continue to work,’ she said.
‘I think as doctors we need to be brave and talk about our own personal struggles that we may have experienced.
‘I just think we need to be more open.’
The eye-catching socks also go beyond the medical profession by raising important wider awareness, Dr Youngson believes.
‘It’s a timely reminder for all of our patients to just realise that we’re all human,’ she said. ‘That we’re all in this together and we all suffer the same hurt and pain as other people do.’

Editor's note: This article was amended on 1 June to clarify what is meant by mandatory professional supervision for GPs.

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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Dr Francisco Rodriguez-Letters   31/05/2022 7:34:58 PM

What a terrible story. I just wished he reached out to a colleague. I must say, however...most respectfully...that to impose even more mandatory tasks and restrictions won't do anything good for us. The one thing I want less in my life is even more paperwork, pro formas, compulsory assessments, restricted hours etc etc. We're already at breaking point. If I were coerced into partaking in regular and permanent supervisor assessments, I think that would be the last straw for me. I'd be out of the game.

Dr Olataga Alofivae-Doorbinnia   31/05/2022 11:13:38 PM

Hi, What a devasting story on so many levels- for his wife and 3 kids, his close medical teams, and us in the community. As GPS we all want to make a difference and yet sometimes we forget our own health and mental health. I support crazy socks 4Doc day this Friday, and so thankful - I have a supportive family and a strong faith to cope with all the things that life and work throw at us daily, and know DR Jono Morling's life was not wasted and we need to prevent/identify early as many of our good doctors and other health professionals passing away too soon. Thank you for sharing.

Dr MT   1/06/2022 7:24:03 AM

Dear Caroline,
I am sorry for your loss. If you want to speak out and help Doctors, please speak to the Government. You should lobby to Medicare authority Not to put pressure on Doctors regarding numbers of patients seen, numbers of tests ordered. A dedicated doctors are usually not stressed by the workload or from patients’ care. We are more stressed out by Government regulation, limitations, litigation.
I would oppose your idea about “permanent supervision and assessment to GPs”. Don’t make GPs suffer more from rules and restrictions

Dr LS   1/06/2022 11:54:06 AM

What a tragic story. My heartfelt condolences to his wife , kids and colleagues.
This story is all to familiar in General Practice and other disciplines of medicine.
Easy to say " have a good work/ life balance "
I am a GP supervisor and have been for a few years. In the last 4 years I have not had any registrars in my practice as I struggle to find the motivation to teach but also to
encourage the next generation of doctors to become GPs.
Why ? Because we are undervalued, We have become mentors and psychologists to our patients as well as specialists in managing acute and chronic diseases in primary care. On top of this the Covid Pandemic ,meetings , teaching , keeping up to date , accreditation etc etc .
Last time I checked there is 24 hours in the day .
The doctors who go the extra mile for their patients are the true family practitioners.
They are revered by their patients but are disadvantaged in so many ways.
Vale Dr Jonathan Morling

Dr Nagappan Srigandan   1/06/2022 12:12:51 PM

Hi Caroline
I am extremely saddened by your loss. I personally understand what you must be going through as I lost my wife a GP to suicide a few years ago. I have still not gotten over it. We worked in the same practice (our practice)for 20 years . Reading your message gave me the courage speak out . Thank you. May the universe give you the strength to go through this difficult time.

Dr Kathryn Sarah Hutt   1/06/2022 12:31:22 PM

It is always so very sad to hear about the tragic loss of a colleague, and the devastating impact on family, friends, patients and our profession as a whole.

As the Medical Director of the Doctors’ Health Advisory Service in NSW, I hope every GP in Australia is aware that there are free, confidential doctor-to-doctor telephone services available 24/7 in every State and Territory. Any doctor or medical student (or their family members and colleagues) can speak anonymously with another experienced and non-judgmental doctor at any time.

Sometimes it just helps to talk to someone who understands, and callers can be connected with additional services if required.

Hundreds of doctors call these numbers every year - it is a safe way to access support.
ACT 1300 374 377
NSW 02 9437 6552
NT 08 8366 0250
Qld 07 3833 4352
SA 08 8366 0250
Tas 1800 991 997
Vic 03 9280 8712
WA 08 9321 3098

Dr Mark Alexander Henschke, OAM   1/06/2022 1:42:37 PM

I was a rural GP obstetrician, like Jono. It was a very fulfilling part of my work as a rural doctor but being on-call 24 hours per day, seven day per week was difficult and I understand the strain it places on procedural rural doctors and their families. I am now working as a Senior Lecturer with Coffs Harbour Rural campus, UNSW. The students are in a Society & Health term and last week was devoted to mental health with the final tutorial focussing on suicide in doctors and medical students. It should be a part of the curriculum of all medical schools across the country. I particularly emphasised the importance of each student and future doctor having their own GP. Sadly Jono did not have a regular GP to turn to.

Dr Daria Fielder   1/06/2022 5:06:50 PM

Dear Caroline , please accept my condolences to you and your family . Thank yon for sharing your story , it is devastating and sadly not uncommon for doctors to die from suicide. We all need to do better to look after each other. Completely agree having a good GP is essential . But we definitely do not need more supervision that would only add to our stress, as it is we are scrutinized more then any other profession .

Dr Dharminder Jit Singh   1/06/2022 6:35:12 PM

My Condolences. Wonderful doctor and family. I checked out video below:

Dr M I   2/06/2022 12:50:54 AM

What a terrible story to read!
Is there blood on AHPRA's hands in this story? I believe there is ....
If there is no rules / restrictions from AHPRA about mandatory reporting , would Dr. Morling be alive with us now?! I strongly believe so ....
What a terrible organisation pushing their members who are paying money to keep this organisation alive while killing their own members .... Is the head of AHPRA brave enough to come forward to address the medical field and society about this tragedy? I doubt it ... I believe she is a GP working in Melbourne , enjoying her chair while young , fit middle age doctor died because of the negligence of AHPRA ....
RIP Dr Morling and condolences to the family and young kids , may the Lord look after them .

Dr S T   3/06/2022 4:38:30 AM

Supervisors and mentors are tax deductible and often may come from the do one teach one mill i.e. got done by self medicating drug dependent or prescription drug dealing patients or treat Medicare to maximise sick leave or WorkCover, Centrelink because bludging is in. Maximising income is so important now our insurers are no longer run by understanding doctor medicolegal specialists but by sharks who will max out the claim for lawyers' income and lay the blame on you. It's an ideal idea to have a good mentor but where do such mentors exist ? You get AHPRA having to pander to over anxious or ambulance chasing lawyer cooperators where even an experienced oncologist has to retire for over protecting over diagnosed patients. It's all sh**t so just don't get depressed by it and don't listen to anyone who sounds like a rorter.

Dr Andrew Peter Knight   4/06/2022 5:02:43 PM

Dear Caroline
I very much agree with you.
I am totally aligned with your vision of essential self-care for GPs.
An ongoing relationship for every GP with a trusted peer, mentor, coach or compassionate supervisor will say doctor's lives, doctor's relationships, doctors mental health and improve the quality of care for our patients and a better working environment for our GP receptionists, practice nurses, visiting medical students and our colleagues!
It is essential (mandatory or not) for GP well being and thank you for being open, embracing your grief, speaking for us when so many of us are burned out, dispirited, overwhelmed, cynical.
Our greatest resource as GPs is ourselves, our whole self , mind body spirit and we need to take care of this multifaceted, multidimensional instrument throughout our long complex working life.
Andrew Knight
GP Albany WA

Dr James Tom Clarence Read   5/06/2022 10:40:19 AM

I am very saddened to read this news as I worked with Jono when he was working as a GP in remote outback Australia. I still remember his amazing combination of kindness dedication and clinical acumen. As a GP Anaesthetist working with him I enjoyed his collaborative and reflective approach. Caroline my deepest condolences and thanks for helping me reflect on self care.

Dr T   30/04/2023 5:00:50 PM

I totally disagree with mandatory "mentoring", "supervision" or relationship with "trusted peer" . Making all doctors find a "mentor" or "peer" to engage in "clinical supervision” simply adds more stress. To some extent this is also a form of victim blaming rather than addressing the complex systemic and political issues leading to increasing suicide rates. No offence but I have yet to meet any doctor that I would regard as a “trusted peer, mentor, coach or compassionate supervisor” - possibly because of the competitive, judgmental nature of medicine and because such relationships form best among people with some similarity, eg from a similar social or ethnic background or similar personality (generally extrovert), otherwise finding someone who can form a meaningful mentoring or peer support relationship is simply impossible. By all means make it easy to get help if needed but do not impose another tick box exercise to be seen to be doing something.