We are often confronted with sobering reminders of the heartbreaking effects of suicide: a topic too often swept under the rug. Our country’s physicians know these feelings all too well as many have been personally impacted by suicide in a way that most general Americans can never grasp. The statistics are staggering. This year roughly 400 physicians will lose their lives to suicide, indirectly impacting over 1 million patients.[i]
Physician burnout is a popular topic that is a worthy discussion and is part of the issue. However, the reality is bigger than that. Most doctors in the US have lost a colleague to suicide, and some have lost as many as eight in their career.[ii]If you are a physician, chances are you know someone who has been lost to suicide. The stresses of a medical career are taxing enough without the burden of grief that most of you carry. Skirting the issue does no one any favors and if we are going to change this pattern, then we need to shine a light on the issue.
5 Steps You Can Take to Fight the War Against Suicide
1. Open and Honest Conversation
Medical problems are solved by closely examining the mechanisms of disease and implementing corrective action. We should consider physician suicide a medical epidemic and treat it as such. Talk about it in your organization and among your colleagues. Discuss the evidence based findings without prejudice. Maybe we can change the lens through which we view this phenomenon.
2. Reach Out/Be Connected
Physicians are trained to hide weakness. Struggling colleagues will try to “power through.” When you see a colleague struggling, don’t be afraid to talk to them. They will resist as it’s in their nature as physicians. That’s ok. It’s important to start making those connections. The more we try, the more we can break down the barriers and have real and constructive conversations. Show your colleagues that you care about them, person to person.
Physicians are ambitious high achievers. They want to push themselves to the top. That competitive spirit gives them drive, and that’s a great thing. They should be careful though to consider the impact of their words and actions on others. Practice respectful communication in all your interactions. Consider the collaborative nature of your field as well as the individualized opportunities. Think about how you can positively impact the workplace and what effect that may have on your struggling colleagues.
4. Balance Work and Family
Physicians are exposed to demoralizing conditions every day. They see humanity at its most miserable and broken moments. Many do this for 80-100 hours a week. The mental and emotional toll is heavy and can be easy to forget all that stuff that’s worth fighting for. Humans are social creatures who need positive social and emotional interactions to thrive. Make time away from the workplace a priority. Schedule it in as you would any other appointment. Spending time with family and friends can help you recharge and rejuvenate your outlook.
5. Get Help
If you are a physician struggling with burnout, depression or suicidal ideation it’s important to get help. Many are hesitant to reach out for fear of professional repercussions. Thankfully, the attitude toward mental health seems to be changing in the medical community, but this will take time. Until then, prioritize your health. The alternative can have a much bigger impact on your career.
If you or a loved one is struggling with depression or suicide, please don’t suffer in silence.
[i]Hoffman, M. and Kunzmann, K. Suffering in Silence: The Scourge of Physician Suicide. Feb. 05, 2018. http://www.mdmag.com/medical-news/suffering-in-silence-the-scourge-of-physician-suicide
[ii]Wimble, P. (MD). What I’ve learned from 952 doctor suicides. Oct. 28, 2017. http://www.idealmedicalcare.org/ive-learned-547-doctor-suicides/
Additional Source: The American Foundation for Suicide Prevention. Healthcare Professional Burnout, Depression and Suicide Prevention. https://afsp.org/our-work/education/healthcare-professional-burnout-depression-suicide-prevention/