Physician suicide: 4 ideas to address the public health epidemic

By Aine Cryts      

Two of the men Pamela Wible, M.D., a family practice physician, dated in medical school took their own lives. Eight physicians in her small town committed suicide. Writ large, physician suicide is a public health issue: More than one million patients lose their physicians each year because those doctors take their own lives.

In a recent interview with Christine Sinsky, M.D., from the American Medical Association, posted on the KevinMD blog, Wible offered several steps to keep physicians well and that the medical community can take to help prevent additional physician suicides:

Build family-like bonds among future physicians. If she were a medical school dean, Wible would give her personal cell phone number to students on the very first day of classes, she said. This is a starting point for creating the collegial, family-like culture she'd like to build within the medical community, just like the tight-knit bonds that firefighters and police rely on. 

Start in medical school with candid conversations about real-life struggles. Provide medical students with access to physicians who can talk candidly about their personal struggles with professional liability cases, patient death, divorce and suicidal thoughts, according to Wible.

Encourage physicians to get treatment for mental illness. While they encourage their patients to seek help from mental health professionals, physicians are less likely to do so themselves, Christine Moutier, M.D., medical director for the American Foundation for Suicide Prevention, told Grand Forks Herald.

Physicians are often less likely than the general population to get proper treatment with antidepressants, she told the newspaper. At the same time, physicians are 20 to 40 times more likely to take sleep medications, barbiturates and antipsychotics, which can be evidence that they're self-medicating their depression.

Showcase happy doctors' experiences and lessons learned. The best way for doctors to learn how to thrive in their professions is through connections with physicians who have figured it out. "[Let's] start showcasing the people who are really having a good time, [whose] patients love them, who are just really rocking it in medicine and that would be a really great way to learn how to do it right," Wible said.

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