Physicians are admired for their sacrifice and dedication. Yet beneath the surface lies a painful, quiet reality:
The Physicians Foundation says that 55% of physicians know a doctor who considered, attempted, or died by suicide. Doctor’s Burden: Medscape Physician Suicide Report 2023 asked more than 9,000 doctors if they had suicidal thoughts. Nine percent of male physicians and 11% of female physicians said yes.
Why do so many doctors take their own lives?
“It’s not a new phenomenon,” says Rajnish Jaiswal, MD, associate chief of emergency medicine at NYC H+H Metropolitan Hospital and assistant professor of emergency medicine at New York Medical College. “There was a paper 150 years ago, published in England, which commented on the high rates of physician suicides compared to other professionals, and that trend has continued.”
Dr. Jaiswal says that the feeling in the physician community is that the numbers are even higher than what’s reported, unfortunately, which is an opinion echoed by other doctors this news organization spoke with for this story.
A perfect storm
Jodie Eckleberry-Hunt, PhD, a board-certified health psychologist, executive coach, and author, says the most significant culprit historically may be a rigid mindset that many physicians have. “There’s black and white, there’s a right answer and a wrong answer, there’s good and bad, and some physicians have a really hard time flexing,” she says.
Psychological flexibility underlies resilience. Dr. Eckleberry-Hunt says, “Think about your bounce factor and how that resilience is protective. Life isn’t always going to go well. You have to be able to flex and bounce, and some physicians (not all of them, of course) tend to be lower on cognitive flexibility.”
Brad Fern, coach and psychotherapist at Fern Executive and Physician Consulting, Minneapolis, says he uses two analogies that help when he works with physicians. One is the evil twins, and the other is the pressure cooker.
Mr. Fern says that the evil twins are silence and isolation and that several professions, including physicians, fall prey to these. To put any dent in suicidal ideations and suicide, Mr. Fern says, these must be addressed.
“Physicians tend not to talk about what’s bothering them, and that’s for many different reasons. They disproportionally tend to be great at helping other people but not great at receiving help themselves.”
On top of that, there’s a pressure cooker where they work. Mr. Fern doesn’t think anyone would argue that the health care system in the United States is not dysfunctional, at least to some degree. He says that this dysfunction acts like the physicians’ pressure cooker.
Add in circumstances, cultures, and day-to-day issues everyone has, like relational issues, parenting issues, and mental health problems. Then, toss in an individual’s lower resiliency, the inability to receive help, and a predicament for good measure – a loss, a divorce, or financial woes, for instance, which can overwhelm. Mr. Fern says it can be a mathematical equation for suicidal ideation.