*Trigger Warning: this post discusses suicide and suicidal thoughts. Please read at your own discretion.*
This post is for all mental health providers, professionals, physicians and dentists. I’m writing with a few people in mind- coworkers I’ve lost to suicide, and one that I admire deeply for being an attempt survivor and psychologist. Colleen, Scott, Austin, Jake and Don Ceo, this one is for you. The five of you were great to work with- I just wish it could have been longer. You were all awesome people in your own ways.
Josh, I’m so grateful you lived for many reasons, one being so that we could become friends. I had no idea what you’d been through right before we met. You’ve been able to help a lot of people in a career that you love deeply. I’m always here for you, but you know this.
The Research Is Out There
I had to do quite a bit of research for this post. I was aware that going into the medical field, no matter what specialty, comes with a lot of stress. Medical school, practicums, clinicals, theses, and other expectations can really throw a lot at a student.
That’s not counting other things that happen while in college and beyond- marriage, children, family issues, and so on. What happens if your thesis is thrown out? What if you don’t get the residency you wanted? What if your grades aren’t what everyone, including yourself, expected? So many questions and thoughts can run through a student’s mind. I wasn’t aware, however, of the statistics of physician suicide.
I’m using the term “physician” as a general term, but it is meant to cover all medical professionals. It’s a very stressful career. According to WebMD one physician completes suicide a day, making it the highest suicide rate of any profession. The general population rate is about 12.3 per 100,000, but in physicians, it is 28-40 per 100,000.
Many of these physicians have underlying untreated mental health issues. This shows a large need for early diagnosis, outreach and treatment. Up to 30% of residents have shown symptoms of depression. Depression is affecting up to 12% of males and 19% of females in this profession. It’s dangerous for anyone to ignore their mental health, and even more for those that care for us. More information about this topic can be found in The Dangers of Ignoring Mental Illness
The main, and possibly unique factors in physician suicide are:
- high demands/extreme stress
- long hours/lack of sleep
- substance abuse
- stigma of seeking help because of fear of losing their job- this is a major issue
- access to lethal means- highly powerful medications
- patient deaths/malpractice suits
You can read about the stigma of men seeking help for mental health issues in Men and Mental Health
What Is Being Done?
Many facilities and medical schools are trying to pick up on this important issue and help those that are struggling. Many physicians have lost a colleague to suicide, which is a feeling I know all too well. In their case, however, they don’t get the time to grieve. Male anesthesiologists are at the highest risk, according to Washington Post due to the medications they have access to. Like many others that die by suicide, many physicians are very skilled at disguising their feelings. They may appear happy but yet suffering on the inside.
There is a stigma within the medical community with seeking help for mental health issues. Many are afraid that they will lose their job and/or license. They fear that their care won’t remain confidential. Some go to different cities or towns and pay cash to keep from having to report to the state boards. They also have little time away from their demanding schedules to get the care they need. These physicians care so much for others, including their own families, they barely have time for themselves.
Facilities are beginning to create cultures in which employees feel comfortable talking about what they are dealing with, minus consequences. This shows physicians do have feelings, they are not robotic. They need to support each other. More research is being done in this area to help gather more understanding for the future.
Some facilities and schools are creating peer support groups so that students/employees feel less alone during rough times. Work/life balance is also being encouraged a lot more in workplaces. Medical schools are incorporating self-care into their professional development classes. They are also teaching classes on how to notice changes in their co-workers. This can be so beneficial. This information can be found on Physician Leaders
Experience Led Me Here
In a decade of work, I’ve worked with a lot of people in a variety of places. I never thought about someone I worked with completing suicide. Someone dying in a car crash? Maybe. Cancer or another devastating illness? Okay. For some reason, suicide didn’t enter my mind. It did when Colleen died, and to this day, I still can’t listen to anything by The Beatles without feeling sad. They were her favorite band, and “Let it Be” was played at her funeral.
The last mental health facility I worked at, sadly, has left me changed forever. One suicide occurred months after I started (Scott), then in 2015, two happened- less than a month apart. Everyone was incredibly sad- how does this happen? Austin and Jake are missed terribly by those that loved and cared about them, myself included. I missed Austin’s visitation and funeral because I was sick, but Jake’s was standing room only. He would have been surprised to see how many people cared about him.
Recently, another former co-worker from there died by suicide, and everyone is wondering the same thing- how does this happen? I don’t think there is an exact answer. It is hard to know what people go through daily, even when they seem well put-together.
Be kind. You never know what the person next to you is going through. They may not be in a deep depression, but might just be having a very hard day. If someone you know is struggling, do what you can to help, even if that’s just listening to them for a while.
If you’re reading this and you are a mental health professional/physician, please reach out if you need it. We need you.
Pics courtesy of Unsplash