It is a difficult and little-known truth that doctors are about twice as likely to commit suicide as members of the general public – according to the American Foundation for Suicide Prevention, physicians have the single highest rate of suicide among all professions. For female physicians, the suicide rate is three to four times higher than for their non-physician counterparts. Physicians are largely aware of this pattern, but the general public – for the most part – is not.
A Lifetime of Stressors
The pressures of the profession are already visible in medical school: the New York Times cited that 9.4% of 4th year medical students and interns reported having suicidal thoughts – just in the previous two weeks. In the US, medical students accumulate mountains of debt, which can make them feel trapped. Both in medical school and beyond, there is no shortage of stories about insensitive institutions that doctors find dehumanizing. Faced with depressive feelings, many doctors are unable or unwilling to get help – in part because of deep stigma still associated with mental health issues. Over half of physicians have said that fear of being ‘outed’ as an ‘impaired physician’ was the greatest obstacle to seeking mental health assistance.
Physicians are often immersed in human suffering, which always requires significant emotional labor (which is linked to exhaustion and stress). Sky-high expectations are placed on doctors by patients, their families, their employers, insurers, government systems and, crucially, themselves. Physicians work long hours, sometimes absurdly long hours, and often go without the recommended amount of sleep. The “system” provides very few, if any, avenues for support – it is one of the reasons that SERMO works to provide doctors a safe and anonymous place to collaborate and relax with each other.
Not a Niche Issue
Given the rates of suicide and the average number of patients that a doctor sees annually, some estimate that 1 million patients will lose their doctor to suicide every year while these tragic trends persist. This is not just a concern for doctors – it is a concern for everyone who relies on a doctor to keep them healthy, and certainly contributes to the incidence of medical mistakes.
Turning the Tides
As the veil gets pulled back on the frequency and extent of physician suicides, many different groups are trying to raise awareness as a way to effect change. Some hospitals are refocusing attention and resources to mental health. Others are bringing this issue to the public in new and compelling ways. Are you a physician? No issues affecting physicians are off limits on SERMO – join to commiserate, laugh, share, and find solace with your peers.