Physician Suicide: A Call to Community
The three black words on the yellow, weathered sign hanging down from the bridge slowly came into focus as I approached the underpass on the highway: “You Are Worthy”. Over the next few miles, their significance dawned on me. Someone in this community wanted to reach out to their neighbors in emotional pain, some perhaps to the point of contemplating suicide, and let them know their lives have value.
September 17th is National Physician Suicide Awareness Day (https://www.cordem.org/npsa). Despite physicians generally having lower overall mortality from diseases such as heart disease and cancer than the general population, they are twice as likely to die from suicide. In fact, it is estimated that about one physician dies from suicide every day in our country. Not surprisingly, untreated depression and job stresses contribute significantly. But Sansone and Sansone suggest that physician personality, including “excessive self-reliance, high personal expectations, and non-disclosure of personal distress” also may lead to a crisis never known to those around them . In other words, our physician and trainee masks that say: “I only treat the sick, I am not the sick” can lead to deadly consequences.
I hope today we, the physician and trainee community, can help our colleagues in emotional pain find a way to start removing these masks. Recognize that about one in eight of our fellow physicians we pass in the halls today is hurting from depression , regardless of how they appear on the outside. For medical students, approximately one out of every five you spend your day with are hurting. I suggest as a simple, practical step to take time and genuinely connect beyond the cursory “How are you?”, especially with those who you sense are just not their normal selves. You may find it an incredibly meaningful part of your day. You may even save a life.
For the physician leaders in our practices, hospitals, medical schools and state medical board, I suggest recognizing the importance of physician and trainee mental wellness to our institutions and community. There are sprouts of hope in physician wellness programs, though still seemingly focused predominantly on burnout and substance use. Depression and suicide remain taboo. May some champions emerge to change this stigma, grow and drive these programs into mainstream. For the emotional pain in our colleagues is our pain. They are us.
For our colleagues hurting from emotional pain, possibly thinking of suicide. Know in your heart that your physician community cares about you. Your pain is real and harmful. Please take off your “I’m Okay” mask and contact a mental health professional. The plain, black letters on the sign speak an undeniable, uncompromising, unending truth: “You Are Worthy”.
 Andrew,L. “Physician Suicide”. Medscape, Aug. 2018. https://emedicine.medscape.com/article/806779-overview#a2