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3 Strategies for Physician Suicide Prevention

By Lena J. Weiner  
   April 24, 2017

Ignoring physician suicide won't make it go away.

"It has to get better," a young man implores his hopelessly out of touch high school counselor. "The way we treat each other and look out for each other. It has to get better somehow."

In the recently released (and controversial) Netflix series 13 Reasons Why, the audience, along with the series' protagonist, a teenager named Clay Jensen, spends thirteen hours questioning how a community could have prevented a suicide.

While 13 Reasons Why focuses on the death of a teenager, Clay's plea has a universally applicable point; in an era of increased social isolation, many people could benefit from an improved system of checking up on the well-being of their friends, colleagues, and neighbors.

While many physicians would deny it, they might benefit more than other groups, says Michael Myers, MD, professor of clinical psychiatry at SUNY Downstate Medical Center in Brooklyn, NY. He specializes in treating physicians, medical students, and their families.

On average, one American physician dies by suicide every day, says Myers. "For male doctors, these numbers are about 1.4 higher than men in general, and for female doctors, it's about 2.3 times the numbers of women in general."

Even more concerning, many physicians do not get help when they need it. Myers estimates that 10 – 15% of physicians who go on to commit suicide never received any treatment.

"The culture of medicine is based on strength and perfectionism. Everyone is expected to be on top of their game," says Myers.

1.Start Talking

The first step in preventing suicide, says Myers, is to talk about it. Especially when something seems amiss or it is known a physician is going through a rough time personally or professionally, Myers suggests reaching out to that individual. "People often worry that they're making worse the situation worse or intruding on privacy," he says.

But the benefits outweigh any risk. "It's possible you might upset them, but you also might save a life."

It's important to let physicians know that in most states and most instances, they cannot lose their licenses for seeking mental health care, says Myers.

"It's a common concern, but in most states and jurisdictions, it's overstated."

Most licensure and renewal applications no longer ask if a physician has ever sought mental health care; most now ask if in the past two years they have suffered from or been treated for any illness that necessitated taking time away from medical practice or studies, says Myers. A weekly therapy session likely wouldn't count.


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Lena J. Weiner is an associate editor at HealthLeaders Media.

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