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There's a mental health crisis in NHS, says writer and comedian Adam Kay: 'So little is being done'

The young doctor turned writer suffered from symptoms common with post-traumatic stress disorder after an incident on the ward

Adam Kay

credit Charlie Clift

The high suicide rate among healthcare workers is an “outrage”, writer and comedian Adam Kay has warned.

Kay – a former junior doctor and the author of the bestselling book This is Going to Hurt – has written extensively about the mental health toll of working in a hospital.

In an exclusive interview with the Big Issue for our Letter to My Younger Self feature, the Bafta-winning writer said he had become “obsessed” with highlighting the inadequate mental health support available to NHS staff.

“This topic of suicide among healthcare staff, the numbers are an outrage, and so little is being done to move the needle on it,” he said.

In 2020 – the most recent year for which data exists – 72 medical professionals took their own lives. In 2022, 360 nurses attempted suicide.

Doctors are taught to hide their emotions, despite immense workloads and limited resources. 

“Lots of junior doctors gave me great feedback after [his 2017 book] This is Going to Hurt came out,” he said. “People saying, ‘Until I read that book, I thought I was the only person that ever cried in the toilet.’

“But I also got hate mail, particularly from an older breed of medical consultant, saying it’s inappropriate to talk about struggling as a doctor; your patients mustn’t know, basically, that you’re human, which is my whole thesis. It’s vital for people to know that you’re human.”

Kay is no stranger to the ward. He spent six years as an obstetrics and gynaecology doctor, but left the profession after a patient’s caesarean section was complicated by an undiagnosed placenta praevi and the baby was delivered stillborn.

The young doctor suffered from symptoms common with post-traumatic stress disorder after the incident and, several months later, resigned.

In 2017, Kay’s first book – This is Going to Hurt: Secret Diaries of a Junior Doctor, based on his own diaries – was published and became an instant bestseller.

The book was motivated by comments from Jeremy Hunt, then the health secretary, accusing junior doctors of being greedy after entering into contract disputes with the NHS.

Kay’s advocacy partly stems from a feeling of personal guilt, he told the Big Issue.

“I feel that ultimately dates back to 16-year-old me and guilt for having left a profession when the country invested good money in training me up. Also, my parents invested all this time and energy. So it’s not a responsibility, it’s a response to guilt,” he said.

To read Adam Kay’s full Letter to My Younger Self, buy a copy of this week’s Big Issue. Find your local vendor here.

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