Medical professionals have chosen a career dedicated to improving the health and lives of patients in need. Unfortunately, it’s not uncommon for professionals in this field to neglect the signs that they need to put their health first for once. What’s worse is that the people who acknowledge problems with depression, suicide and burnout are often met with elders in the medical community telling them to “suck it up.” For years, the heightened occurrence of suicide among doctors and medical students was hidden, but it’s starting to become a more widely-discussed issue.
Acknowledging the Problem
Depression and suicide are not problems isolated to the medical community, but doctors do have the highest suicide rates when compared to people in other professions, including the military. Every year, an estimated 400 physicians commit suicide.This issue isn’t something that only comes after many years of working in the field. Higher rates of suicide are present in medical students, residents and fellows. Most residency programs spend the minimal amount of time required speaking about these common mental health issues, yet still offer no material help or solutions. They only criticize and assign residents more work. In my own personal experience, I remember that we were told “take time off if needed, just know it is a sign of weakness.” I’m sure there are people in this field who have been supported when they needed it, but I’m also sure there are people who have had their concerns met with disbelief or pure apathy.
One study suggested that depression affected approximately 12 percent of male doctors and nearly 20 percent of female doctors. Up to 30 percent of residents have symptoms of depression, as well. Male doctors are 1.4 times more likely to commit suicide than men in the general population, and female doctors are 2.3 times more likely to commit suicide than women in the general population. Fear of stigma can make people reluctant to be honest about their symptoms and seek professional help. Mood disorders like depression may contribute to the high suicide rates for medical professionals, but alcoholism and substance abuse also play a role in certain cases.
When thinking about these types of problems, our scope is often narrowed to doctors in the United States, but research suggests that this problem extends well beyond North America. China, Singapore, Australia, Finland and Norway have also reported an increase in depression, anxiety and suicidal thoughts among medical students and healthcare professionals. This isn’t just something affecting our country. It is a global issue for medical professionals.
Resolving the Problem
Through rigorous education and medical training, medical professionals are expected to conceal their emotions and persevere regardless of how they feel. The stress and exhaustion of medical school and residency is often followed by a feeling of isolation in practice. There is a need for change, but it’s difficult to have one concrete answer for what that change should be. Anyone entering the medical profession knows that it’s notorious for being difficult and stressful. Many schools and facilities have started offering resources and tips for becoming more resilient to stress, but the problem is bigger than these solutions can solve.
One of the first steps is continuing to increase awareness about the issue and ending the stigma of asking for help and putting our own mental health first sometimes. A woman named Pamela Wible is doing just that by combating “assembly-line medicine” in her own medical career and devoting her time to medical student and physician suicide prevention in her spare time. There is also a documentary called Do No Harm, aiming to bring light to the crisis in the medical community.
While big movements are incredibly important for lasting change, we can all do our part on a daily basis to help each other in the meantime. If you see that someone is struggling, reach out and offer to be a system of support. Don’t be another voice telling them they can’t show weakness if they want to be successful in the medical profession. Remember that it’s also important to check on yourself and assess your own mental state, acknowledging that it’s not shameful to ask for help if you’re feeling hopeless. In order to treat patients the best we can, we must first treat ourselves. You can’t pour from an empty bucket.
This may seem like an abstract issue to anyone who hasn’t experienced this kind of loss personally, but there are thousands of people out there grieving over the loss of their loved one who took their own life. The increased suicide rates and mental health challenges have been plaguing the medical community for decades, so we can’t expect rapid, overnight change. What we can hope for is that suicide rates for medical professionals (and suicide rates as a whole) begin to decline year over year.