Stop the Silence: Strategies for Preventing Physician Suicide

We often entrust doctors with healing us, but sometimes they’re the ones in need. Working in fast-paced or stressful environments for years on end absolutely take its toll. Of course, no one gets into medicine thinking it will be a breeze. Physicians deal with an enormous amount of pressure to save lives, and unfortunately, this causes many to take their own. Although it’s a tough subject, we’ll discuss strategies for preventing physician suicide along with some valuable resources.

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strategies for preventing physician suicide

On average, one physician dies by suicide every day in the United States according to expert, Michael Myers, MD. Compared to the general population, these numbers are 1.4 times higher than American men and 2.3 times than the current rates for women. Because physicians are usually among other top professionals, they don’t often find themselves in the role of patient. Some estimates suggest that 10-15 percent of physicians who commit suicide never receive any form of treatment. Working to change these sad statistics means figuring out ways to start the conversation on strategies for preventing physician suicide.

Three Strategies for Preventing Physician Suicide

1. Talk Privately With Someone

Often times, the first step to helping someone overcome their risk of suicide is reaching out to them. This is rarely a comfortable conversation to have, although it’s worth potentially saving someone’s life. If someone is going through a particularly rough time, they may not exactly be open to discussions. This makes it important to bring this topic up appropriately. Most of the time, people avoid reaching out to others for fear of invading their privacy or making the situation worse.

Thanks to the ease of connecting digitally, reaching out via social media is one such way to get the conversation started. This way, someone can deny the message if they choose and won’t feel “cornered” in a real-life situation or work environment. Otherwise, getting some one-on-one time with someone throughout the workday is a reliable way to start.

Here’s a great TedMed Talk from Dr. Pamela Wible on the subject:

2. Train Physicians to Know the Signs

Another one of the key strategies for preventing physician suicide comes from knowing the signs. While HR departments are usually responsible for professional concerns and conflicts, physicians and their peers need to prepare as well. Really, the coworkers of physicians suffering from suicidal thoughts are a significant source of prevention. Although the signs of each individual vary, generally they include:

  • Seeming distant or preoccupied.
  • Seeming tired or hopeless for more than a couple days
  • Changes in personality or appearance
  • Self-medication

Although it’s sometimes rude to assume things about coworkers, reaching out when you have a gut feeling is the first step. Additionally, if you don’t feel comfortable addressing the situation yourself, lean on the support of others and trained professionals.

3. Promote Balance and Awareness

It’s no secret that many starting a medical career encounter considerable pressure to excel. The field of medicine is so competitive and labor intensive that working more than is healthy often gets rewarded. Sure, the payoff of a medical degree is worth it to many, but others really take a hit in terms of their physical and mental health. Of the strategies for preventing physician suicide, this one is the most long-term and organizational.

Promoting balance and awareness in hospitals and medical communities is extremely important. Physician burnout sometimes gets worn as a badge of honor and this needs to change. In many ways, this starts as an HR initiative but plays out in physician peer groups and communities. Advocating for a healthy work-life balance and adequate self-care can really make the difference to someone who is severely depressed. In addition to internal support, using the national resources available is another aspect of this strategy:

If you or someone you know is struggling with severe depression or suicidal thoughts, reach out to the resources above. Try talking to that person or other professionals for support, and try to recognize ways to help those in need. Thoughts or comments? Share them below!


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