Physicians supporting physicians during Mental Health Week

Doctors are known for helping others, but what happens if a physician needs emotional support themselves? Among other more traditional supports, Vancouver Coastal Health runs a confidential Physician Peer Support Program for doctors and is raising awareness about it as we mark Mental Health Week from May 6-12.

Trigger warning: This article discusses suicide and suicidal ideation. 

Vancouver General Hospital Anesthesiologist Dr. Asim Iqbal knows first-hand how significant mental health can be for physicians.

He has lost two friends who were also colleagues in the UK to suicide and, at one point, was so burned out, he temporarily lost partial vision in his left eye.

Portrait of Dr. Asim Iqbal
“We deal with a lot of trauma, as physicians, and we often feel like we have ‘walk it off,’ but then we internalize it.”

Dr. Asim Iqbal

Losing friends

Two of his colleagues took their own lives while he was working at a hospital in England, prior to joining Vancouver Coastal Health in 2020. One may have been traumatized after volunteering to work with COVID-19 patients at the height of the pandemic and the other showed no visible signs of internal turmoil.

“Outwardly everything looked OK, even on the day he died,” says Iqbal. “It just came out of the blue. He didn’t reach out to anybody. That’s why we have this peer support group – to hopefully provide an avenue for people to reach out before they do something drastic. And it’s also completely confidential.”

Studies show approximately 90 per cent of doctors turn to other doctors when there’s an event at work and they’d like to talk to someone.

“Physicians often face chronic stresses that come with the job, along with a struggle for a healthy work-life balance,” says Iqbal. “I had to teach myself this after suffering a stress-related health condition with my vision in 2017, after a combination of work and home life difficulties. That’s when I first decided to explore physician wellness.”

He was able to fully recover his vision two months later after some adjustments to improve his wellbeing.

Peer support training

Made up of more than 40 physician peer supporters across VCH, the volunteers are trained by experts from Harvard Medical School and Schulich School of Medicine and Dentistry. The volunteers come from a variety of specialties and across the VCH region.

“It's not something that takes up a huge amount of time,” he says. “It just helps breakdown any barriers to seeking help, such as a lack of time, confidentiality and concerns around workplace repercussions.”

“I think just knowing this program is there, in case there are any issues, is great,” he says. “It shows the organization takes the mental health of physicians seriously.”

How to reach out

Physicians can email the peer support group at with any questions or to request follow-up support. Referrals can also be made for professional help, as necessary. If you or someone you know is thinking about suicide, please call: