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A third of Australian optometrists experiencing moderate to severe psychological distress

New Australian research has revealed that many optometrists are struggling with their mental health, with those in the early stages of their career particularly susceptible.

A pre-COVID survey of 505 registered practising Australian optometrists in mid‐November 2019 revealed that 31% were experiencing moderate to severe psychological distress, with similar findings for depression and anxiety. One in four were also experiencing moderate to extremely severe stress.

Optometrists under 30 were 3.5 times more likely to report moderate to severe psychological distress than those over 30, according to the survey. (Optometry Board of Australia’s latest statistics indicate there are 1,525 registered optometrists under 30. These early career optometrists make up the largest age group in the profession.)

The survey results also demonstrated a prevalence of high burnout, as indicated by exhaustion (56% of respondents), cynicism (57%) and professional efficacy (23%).

The study published in the journal Ophthalmic and Physiological Optics, titled ‘The mental health and wellbeing survey of Australian optometrists’, is the first to investigate the prevalence of mental health conditions and burnout among optometrists using validated scales.

Professor Sharon Bentley is head of Queensland University of Technology (QUT)’s School of Optometry and Vision Science. She led the research team and told Insight that the proportion of optometrists affected and the level of severity were among the most surprising findings.

The survey comprised three well‐established mental health scales and an open‐ended question inviting comments.

“We were very pleased by the high response rate and surprised by the number of participants who chose to volunteer comments,” Bentley said.

The most frequently mentioned work‐related issues concerned retail pressures, workload and career dissatisfaction.

“Further investigation is required to understand the specific factors driving these issues and the most effective solutions,” Bentley said.

“This is a complex problem requiring a variety of strategies that address both personal and workplace factors. At QUT School of Optometry and Vision Science, our plan is to introduce basic mental health and resilience training to students, to support and prepare them before they enter the workforce.”

The study’s authors concluded that rates of mental health conditions and burnout reported by practising Australian optometrists were relatively high compared with the general population and other health professionals.

“Younger age and burnout were significant risk factors for psychological distress. Interventions are required to address these issues, particularly for younger optometrists, and could include workplace modifications and building resilience to improve personal mental wellbeing and ensure patient safety,” they noted.

While QUT is planning to introduce mental health training, organisations like Optometry Australia (OA) are also bolstering mental health support services for its members.

The organisation said it recognises that the impact of COVID-19 and ongoing snap lockdowns throughout Australia are continuing to add undue stress to practitioners.

“These results further reflect those of another survey that Optometry Australia conducted in 2020 which highlighted 46% of members were anxious about their future,” OA said.

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