Dr Tahnee Bridson was recently awarded the 2022 Queensland Young Australian of the year for her work as the founder of Hand-n-Hand Peer Support, which is a free and confidential peer support network for health workers in Australia and in New Zealand.
This is something that during and after going through a pandemic, the profession needs more than ever. It fosters a culture in the medical profession in which mental health is valued and can be sought without fear or shame. Tahnee is a Psychiatry Registrar, and she's passionate about improving the well-being of doctors and of medical students.
Dr Sam Hazledine caught up with her on his Better Together podcast to find out more about her Hand-n-Hand Peer Support journey and what needs to change within the profession.
Listen to the full podcast here:
Dr Tahnee Bridson grew up in a small country town in far north Queensland. Both of her parents came from backgrounds where they didn't get to finish school; her dad grew up on a cattle station, and her mum was an immigrant from Italy.
“My Mum came to Australia, not speaking a word of English, and then went to an all-English speaking school and there was a lot of racism towards the Italians and the Greeks and the Spanish back in the sixties and seventies when they came over. And so she never finished high school, my dad never finished high school but obviously, they would've liked to have done that kind of thing.”
Tahnee attended the same high school as her parents, and in a small town (where everyone knew everyone) she felt that she was looked upon as someone who would not excel academically.
“I really wanted to prove that I could do something and fight that stigma that my parents had gone through.”
Tahnee applied herself, and finished high school with top grades.
“I guess there's this kind of thing that if you do well at school, people think that you'll be a doctor or a lawyer or something along those lines.”
When Tahnee started studying medicine at university, the same feeling of unworthiness and self-pressure began to build.
“My parents weren't doctors. I always had this feeling that I wasn't good enough; I was an imposter. So I was always really striving to do my best and to do well. “
Tahnee had a supervisor who was quite harsh and, “the typical medicine doctor that you see in the movies (Like Dr Cox off Scrubs)”
“And I think because of my upbringing and where I'd come from, I had this idea that I had to prove people wrong, and I wouldn't give up.”
Tahnee pushed herself to achieve more and take on extra curricular work, until she reached breaking her own breaking point - and then pushed through it.
“One day I was at uni, and I ended up collapsing and getting sent to ED…The doctors came around and they told me that they were diagnosing me with anorexia nervosa. I hadn't even thought about mental illness or psychiatry or anything; it just didn't cross my mind.”
After going through this, Tahnee started to realise the importance of mental health, and then, when she found a really good mentor who was a psychiatrist she found joy within the profession.
“They showed me that you could do all these extracurricular things without having a consultant or a supervisor around you who wanted to make you cry every day."
Tahnee was inspired: “there was still so much unknown about mental illness and why things happened or how to fix them.”
Dr Bridson's "brain child" Hand-n-Hand Peer Support
Tahnee had never spoken about her own experiences with mental illness with her patients or at work. It wasn’t until the Australian of the Year award, that she spoke openly about her journey for the first time.
“I was always really conscious because a lot of people would tell you that as a doctor, you can't have an illness and you can't let people know that you've been unwell because you'll be stigmatised and that people would say, especially in psychiatry, if you are somebody who has an illness, you definitely shouldn't tell your colleagues because they'll judge you.”
It took becoming an Australian of the Year for Tahnee to feel confident enough to share that story, which just goes to show just how difficult it is for health professionals to actually admit any form of vulnerability.
“I just thought, I'm doing all this work to support doctors and healthcare workers and I'm advocating that we should get help and I've now been given this platform. I need to show people as well that it's okay to speak up.”
When Tahnee was mentally unwell she remembers feeling incredibly alone. "I was (maybe intentionally, maybe not) made to feel like I was the only person who could be going through something like this in medicine as a med student or a doctor."
When she finished medicine and was out of that situation she realised that she was not the only doctor suffering.
"That same year one of the doctors in my hometown ended their life by suicide. I think that was also a big light bulb moment where I really started to realise it wasn't that we were alone in this fight, it's just that people didn't talk about it and there wasn't any sort of supports available for those of us who were going through it."
When COVID came along and Tahnee started seeing what was happening overseas; healthcare workers who were sleeping on the hallways, and increased doctor suicides, she realised that she wanted to do something to help.
"I reached out to a few of my colleagues and mentors and said, shouldn't we be doing something? Shouldn't we be doing something to support our colleagues out there so that we don't end up with the same things happening?"
Tahnee put the idea on social media and had about 400 people respond in 24-hours saying it was needed. "It just took off from there and has had a life of its own since then."
Hand-n-Hand Peer Support is a now a thriving not-for-profit organisation offering free, confidential peer support for health professionals in Australia and New Zealand.
"We've been really lucky that we've got an amazing group of volunteers; a lot of whom have been with us from the very beginning in 2020; they've volunteered to help build Hand-n-Hand and get it to where it is now and build the organisation."
Changing the profession from within
Through Hand-n-Hand Peer Support, Tahnee has created a movement within the profession. Dr Hazledine explains that the "profession is struggling" but what he finds really heartening from his experiences and Tahnee's story "is that there's a real feeling that people want to help, that people want this to change."
"I really feel like our generation and the generation of med students that are coming through, it is more now than just us talking about it," Tahnee explained. "I think we are all looking for ways to actually make the change happen because we are sick of seeing this same thing repeated over and over and over again. The Dr. Cox culture, we have all encountered at least one of them."
Tahnee explains that she thinks it is important to provide doctors with help before they "fall off a cliff," and that's what Hand-n-Hand Peer Support does.
"But then there's also the kind of systemic issues, like how do we get rid of bullying and discrimination and how do we start to actually address those things in the workplace that chip away at you day in, day out."
She believes that it starts with the little things, things that should be a given, like allowing doctors to take lunch breaks.
"And getting paid for overtime, how many people don't get paid for overtime or, work weekend shifts and don't get paid or work the on-call the night before and then."
She explains how the staff shortages are affected the mental health of the profession.
"There's not enough staff and we are trying to do the best job that we can, but we know that we're not doing the best job (and it's not really our fault). It's more of a systemic issue, but I think often we take it on as well. And then that also contributes to the whole not taking breaks, not looking after ourselves."
She describes these as "moral injuries." "We are that caring profession where we want to be able to help all of the people coming to us for help."
To conclude the interview, Dr Sam Hazledine asks Dr Tahnee Bridson some questions.
If you could go back in time and speak to your 18-year-old self, what are the three most important pieces of advice that you would give young Tahnee?
"I think 18-year-old me was, well, it was pretty similar to me, but I think was just a lot more unconfident and a lot more self-doubting and probably felt like she didn't really belong in the university or medicine world.
I would tell her to have more confidence in herself, to stop thinking that she has to get a hundred percent in an exam in order to be worthy; you don't have to.
Everyone always used to tell me "P's get degrees" and I didn't even believe that. I know you have to do your best, but you don't have to kill yourself over it.
I think I would also tell her to have a bit more fun. I think it's really important for us, especially as doctors.
I thought uni was the be-all-end-all, and I thought med school was like make or break, and I had to do well or was the end of the world. I definitely would've told myself to make the most of those years because now a few years down the track from finishing uni and I feel like I didn't make the most of my kind of uni life.
One of the other things I would say is hang out with your family and people who aren't in medicine, because I think sometimes we get caught up in the bubble of medicine and all you're doing is talking medicine, exams, and study and you just get sucked into this world that is only medicine.
I think sometimes it's so important to have people outside of this world to be like, oh yes, actually medicine is strange and there are other things out there and there is a whole world out there that other people live in that we seem to forget about that."
How do you want to be remembered? How do you want people to think of you?
"I don't know. I always think that I like to be someone who's ready to help other people, whether they're friends or colleagues, or, even people that I might not know. So I think it's something that's important to me being a helpful, caring person. So I think that's probably how I'd like to be remembered. Just probably very like medicine."
How to contact Hand-n-Hand Peer Support?
"We have a website. You can just Google us Hand-n-Hand Peer Support and on there, you can sign up to get peer support.
You don't have to put in full details if you don't want to, but just like a name, what area of practice you're in and what you're looking for, and then the same goes for people who are wanting to volunteer, they can fill in the "I want to be a facilitator" form, and they can also just email us.
We're always really keen to get more volunteers. And I love the culture that we have in Hand-n-Hand at the moment because we all work so well together, and we all look after each other and we all are really grateful for the work that everyone does."