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Physicians and Suicide: A Rising Concern

Graduating from medical school and starting one’s residency can be the most exhilarating time in the life of future physicians. However, some residents never get the opportunity to fully reap the benefits of their hard-earned work. Unfortunately, there is a tragic and often avoided topic pertaining to the medical profession; doctors are completing suicide at an alarming rate. When you think of doctors you often think about saving lives and restoring health. Rarely, do we think about physician suicide. Doctors commit suicide at a rate more than twice the national average. Every year approximately 400 physicians take their own lives. This number calculates to roughly one death per day, or the equivalent of two entire graduating medical classes each year. Imagine, losing two classes per year of our best and brightest.

Depression, anxiety, self-doubt, and burnout are of the factors that have been positively correlated to physician suicide. Surprisingly, residents and acting physicians are not routinely assessed for depression or suicidal ideations. With the most recent completed suicides amongst residents there needs to be more education and training to aid with the identification of the warning signs of depression amongst medical school students. Ironically, a lot of education and training is providing to physicians in an effort to reduce or eliminate patient suicide. Make no mistake newly minted physicians are not the only physicians at risk of suicide. Practicing physicians with a lengthy history in the field of medicine are also at risk. However, the rate of suicide amongst new physicians is a lot higher than that of physicians that have been practicing medicine for several years. The rate for suicide is especially disturbing for physicians between the ages of 25 to 40.

Alarmingly, many physicians experiencing depressive symptoms or thoughts of suicide never seek or obtain mental health services. The stigma of mental health transcends the general population by impacting physicians that one would assume are aware of the dangers of failing to seek and secure treatment for mental health concerns. Sometimes depression and suicide are the result of slow-building and long-standing issues. Other times they seem to come out of the blue. There is a fear among physicians that seeking mental health services conveys weakness or an inability to perform his/her job. I am unaware of any physician that willing wants to be questioned about his or her competence, therefore, when negative symptoms emerge they are hidden from onlookers.

Treatment Approaches

Treatment approaches should be enhanced to help physicians better recognize the signs and symptoms in providers, developing techniques to address intense feelings of stress, anxiety, and burnout which could lead to attempted or completed suicide. As a culture, we need to help both the general population and physicians destigmatize mental illness. Mental illness can happen to anyone, it does not have to be long and destabilizing, there are effective treatment options available. We should also develop more effective approaches to best identify those that are struggling with negative symptoms. The goal is to provide physicians with prompt and targeted mental health assessments, medical & support, and treatment when negative symptoms emerge. By tracking, conducting research, and reporting this information we can become better equipped to identify and implement appropriate treatment options and reduce the rate of physician suicide.