Suicide Prevention Week

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World Suicide Prevention Day: A Physician's Reflection

by Tracy Sanson, MD

Every day, we lose a physician. This is a public health crisis.

We can treat depression. Suicide is preventable. And yet, in America, we lose doctors on a daily basis. In their homes, in hospital chapels, in parking lots, on rooftops, they decide that the life of a physician is not one that they can bear.

The American healthcare system is failing its physicians.

Monday, September 10th was World Suicide Prevention Day. Physician suicide is a horribly painful subject. In confronting it, we are asked to lay bare our deepest anxieties, frustrations, insecurities, and pain. But we owe it to our colleagues who are no longer with us and those that are struggling to get through today to talk openly about why physicians kill themselves, who is most at risk, and what we can do to help each other.

The toll of patient loss, malpractice suits, sleep deprivation, and brutal working conditions is significant— even unbearable to some doctors. Of course, we talk about knowing the signs. We are taught to recognize when a colleague distances themselves, or when feelings of hopelessness arise. But physicians have been taught that we ought to be invincible and we have designed elaborate and effective ways to mask our pain.

So we must do more than recognize signs of distress. We most take actionable steps to end physician suicide.

What can we do?

We must talk. No more silence. Physician suicides are often covered up, talked about in hushed tones. We must talk about the physicians we have lost, their lives and their deaths. Loud and ongoing discussions will force the medical community at large to confront conditions in medical schools, residencies, and practices all over the country that lead to suicide.

We must hold our institutions accountable. If we consistently see behavior from a school or institution that doesn’t uphold the humanity of its physicians, we must be vocal about it. We must restore humanity to medical training and the practice of medicine in America.

We must facilitate mental health care without repercussions for physicians. We must create a culture in which physicians feel supported and empowered to seek out the mental health care they need without fear of stigma or loss of their license.

We must reframe the language around depression and suicide among physicians. Language matters. Terms like “burnout” and calls for doctors to be more resilient shifts the blame back onto physicians. Rather than suggesting yoga and meditation and green juice for physicians and medical students, we must examine and change the conditions physicians face in American health care.

Instead of telling physicians to cope, let us work together to end the culture in medicine that damages the minds, bodies, and spirits of physicians across the country.

National Suicide Prevention Lifeline

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Maria Patterson