One in 10 physicians contemplates suicide in his or her career, and 300-400 U.S. physicians die by suicide each year, according to national estimates.
It’s not just a national concern. MSSC has lost members to suicide, and in the past seven years, more than 30 local health care providers (including non-physicians) have died by suicide, according to the Sedgwick County Suicide Prevention Coalition.
September is Suicide Prevention Month, and Sept. 17 was National Physician Suicide Awareness Day. As part of these campaigns, MSSC is highlighting the heightened risk physicians face, ways physicians can support each other, and some of the resources available.
Higher rates of burnout, suicide
“Residents, physicians and medical students have higher rates of burnout, depression and suicide than the general population,” Nicole Klaus, a psychologist and associate professor at KU School of Medicine-Wichita, said in a presentation on preventing physician suicides.
This disparity is particularly high among female physicians, who have suicide death rates that are 250% to 400% higher than females in other professions, according to the American Foundation for Suicide Prevention. Among residents and medical students, suicide is the second leading cause of death.
The stress and demands of work are key factors why physicians are more at risk. But another factor is that physicians may not seek professional help for depression or suicidal ideation.
“Physicians are not known for being good patients or taking good care of themselves,” Klaus said. “And physicians and trainees are less likely to seek mental health treatment when it is needed.”
Look out for each other
As a result, it is important that colleagues look out for each other and intervene when needed. Klaus says to pay attention if another physician talks about being a burden, feeling trapped, or feeling hopeless or helpless. Behavioral warning signs include using alcohol or drugs more often, acting recklessly or aggressively, and withdrawing from activities and loved ones. Mood warning signs are depression, loss of interest, rage or anger, irritability, humiliation or anxiety.
If a physician is concerned about a colleague, reach out and ask how the person is doing. Don’t assume that someone else will or has already done that. Also don’t assume that accomplished peers never struggle.
It can be valuable to prepare for such a conversation. Tips on finding the right time and choosing the right words are available on the National Physician Suicide Awareness Day website at https://tinyurl.com/4mxrwrju.
A study published in the Journal of The Association of American Medical Colleges also advised stating the obvious when visiting with distressed colleagues:
- That you respect them
- Think well of them for getting help
- That you are willing to help them connect with treatment
- That you will continue to be there for them
To help mitigate burnout, which can lead to depression and suicidal ideation, medical systems should support physicians by providing adequate staffing and other resources, reducing administrative burdens and the emphasis on productivity targets, and both encouraging and enabling self-care.
There are resources for physicians needing support. MSSC partners with The Battle Within and Frontline Therapy to offer teletherapy services to physicians. MSSC members can receive up to six free, confidential teletherapy sessions with a vetted therapist. Physicians who are interested can complete an application at thebattlewithin.org/frontlinetherapynetwork.
The Kansas Medical Society also offers an extensive Professionals’ Health Program. Learn more at kmsonline.org.
Additional resources are available through organizations such as the Suicide and Crisis Lifeline (call or text 988), the Physician Support Line (1-888-409-0141), the Therapy Aid Coalition, the Suicide Prevention Resource Center and the American Foundation for Suicide Prevention.
Physicians sometimes are reluctant to seek care because of licensing worries, fears of lost work opportunities or fears of appearing “weak.” But seeking care can make doctors better providers.
As Klaus stated: “The highest quality of patient care starts with a healthy and resilient health care provider.”