Physician suicide: Programs shine light on this long-neglected problem

Doctor wearing lab coat and stethoscope

The “dirty secret” of physician suicides is coming to light as the healthcare industry develops programs to provide doctors with the help they need.

An estimated 350 to 400 physicians kill themselves each year, according to the American Foundation for Suicide Prevention. A study published last year in the Journal of the American Medical Association found that 21 to 43 percent of medical residents suffer from depression.

The problem’s partly rooted in characteristics that many doctors share, including perfectionism, strong work ethic and harsh self-judgment, according to an article at Psychiatric Times, yet the stigma surrounding mental illness continues to hamper efforts to provide help. A documentary film “Do No Harm,” calls the issue " medicine's dirty secret" and points to a hidden medical culture of bullying, sleep deprivation and fear of seeking help.

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"When a physician asks for help, she or he needed it yesterday," Joan Anzia, M.D., a psychiatry professor at Northwestern University's Feinberg School of Medicine, says in a Chicago Tribune article. And the industry is finally taking notice by implementing programs to help doctors.

The American Medical Association, for example, has created STEPS Forward, a series of web-based interactive modules designed to help create a culture of wellness and resiliency.

Northwestern has a clinician available for confidential consultations around the clock. Brigham and Women's Hospital's various resources include a clinician who reaches out to doctors after adverse events. Saint Louis University School of Medicine made curriculum changes that helped reduce depression and anxiety, according to Healthcare Dive. And proposed legislation in Missouri would establish a committee to study depression at the state’s medical schools.

Just having a place to cry after a patient dies, can be cathartic, Anzia says, also pointing to the need for support inside the hospital, as well as from family and friends; hobbies, exercise and sleep to relieve stress.

To learn more:
- find the Psychatric Times article
- read the Chicago Tribune story
- learn more about the documentary
- read the Healthcare Dive story