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Medicine grapples with physician suicide

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Shame undermines therapeutic alliance

As a specialist in physician health, I shout out that we can never have too many articles on this heartbreaking tragedy that claims so many lives each year - and leaves so many devastated people in its wake.

Dr. Michael F. Myers

It is sobering and frightening that despite the excellent institutional and systemic changes outlined by Dr. Reynolds and Dr. Moutier and the moving first-hand testimonials of Dr. Bright and Dr. Wible, despairing doctors continue to die by their own hands. The loss of so many intelligent, highly trained, and compassionate caregivers is mind-numbing and unconscionable. We cannot afford to let down our guard.

As part of my research for a book in progress "When Physicians Kill Themselves: The Voices of Those They Leave Behind," I have been interviewing the family members and medical colleagues of doctors who have died by suicide.

One theme that is ascendant is how commonly the ailing physician has fallen through the cracks. Initially, he may not recognize or accept that he is burned out, depressed, or abusing alcohol and other drugs. When she does begin to understand what her symptoms suggest, the internalized stigma is so harsh and relentless that seeking help is out of the question. This drives self-medicating, but even when this does not occur and he consults a psychiatrist, punishing shame colors and works against forming a therapeutic alliance, accepting the diagnosis, keeping appointments, disclosing dangerous suicidality, adhering to medication, engaging in lifesaving psychotherapy and maintaining (or regaining) hope.

What makes matters worse is when the treating professional cuts corners (or enables self-defeating behaviors in the patient) and does not use the same judgment, monitoring, and vigilance that she uses with her nonphysician patients.

What I have found most disturbing in these narratives of my interviewees is how often their attempts to access their loved one's caregiver have fallen on deaf ears. This has to stop.

Dr. Wible says that she "had an epiphany" and changed the way she practiced medicine. It is our duty to reach out and help more physicians find their epiphany.

Dr. Michael F. Myers is professor of clinical psychiatry at SUNY Downstate Medical Center in Brooklyn, N.Y. He also is the coauthor (with Carla Fine) of "Touched by Suicide: Hope and Healing After Loss" and (with Dr. Glen O. Gabbard) of "The Physician as Patient: A Clinical Handbook for Mental Health Professionals."


 

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He said that he would advise them to find a mental health provider “that they trust with confidentiality, and to reach out to other people for support. I would also let them know about the physician assistance programs that are available. There’s one through Vanderbilt (the Vanderbilt Center for Professional Health) and several others that specialize in working with physicians who are struggling with mental health or substance abuse or disruptive behavior.”

Dr. Reynolds’ core message to distressed physicians is that “you’re a better doctor for your patients, and a better father or mother for your family, if you’re taking good care of yourself,” he said. “It’s hard for you to take care of your patients if you’re not also taking care of yourself, if you’re burning out. Get help. Treatment works.”

Dr. Christine Moutier, chief medical officer of the American Foundation for Suicide Prevention, added that troubled physicians “should feel no shame for the fact that they’re in distress. Any of us can get there through a whole variety of different pathways that life presents. There’s science and data to support this experience as commonplace and having underpinnings that are of no fault to anyone. That’s the reality.”

Dr. Christine Moutier

Dr. Christine Moutier

Dr. Wible, who has lost several colleagues and physician friends to suicide, said that she hopes for a more transparent discussion of the topic by the medical profession. She presented on the topic at the 2014 annual scientific assembly of the American Academy of Family Physicians.

“The talk before mine was on Ebola, and every seat was taken” in the 900-seat room. When it came time for her presentation, “I maybe had 100 people in the room. Now, are physicians more likely to die from Ebola or from suicide? We are in a state of denial. If we don’t talk about suicide, we will continue to lose one or two medical students or doctors every day. The sooner we talk about this and connect with each other outside of a PowerPoint presentation, the sooner we’re going to solve this.”

After a physician in a large clinical department at the University of Pittsburgh took his own life several years ago, the chair of that department invited Dr. Reynolds to speak with his staff. The meeting “was primarily educational in nature, so we talked about the topic, to try to destigmatize and to educate people about the need for appropriate help-seeking,” recalled Dr. Reynolds, who is a former president of the American College of Psychiatrists. “If the leadership of a medical institution appropriately sanctions help-seeking behavior and treatment of mental disorders like depression, that’s going to make it okay for people to reach out and seek help rather than pushing it under the rug, so to speak. If the leadership says ‘this is a key thing and we don’t think you can function adequately as a medical student or as a physician if you’re not taking appropriate care of yourself,’ that helps to shift the culture.”

The ripple effect of that kind of message from health care administrators can’t be underestimated, said Dr. Moutier, who helped launch a suicide and depression awareness program at the University of California, San Diego (Acad. Med. 2012;87:320-6). She encouraged health care leaders to stage periodic grand rounds and lectures for their medical staff about physician well-being, burnout, and the risk of suicide. “If the leader is uncomfortable talking about these things, that’s a sign they should get a little education for themselves about [these topics],” she said.

Dr. Charles F. Reynolds III

Dr. Charles F. Reynolds III

Dr. Reynolds noted that certain state medical licensure boards including those for Arkansas and Pennsylvania have incorporated destigmatizing language into relicensure exams. “Some of them previously would ask questions such as whether the applicants had a history of a mental disorder like depression,” he said. “What you’re beginning to see now increasingly is that the state medical board will ask more generic questions, like ‘Do you have any conditions that would interfere with the practice of your specialty in medicine?’ This is a good thing.”

He said that he is optimistic about future of physician well-being, noting that the University of Pittsburgh and other medical schools have incorporated wellness principles into first-year curriculum. “We underscore the importance of students becoming sensitive to one another, learning how to recognize depression in each other and creating a culture in which students can encourage each other to engage in appropriate help-seeking,” Dr. Reynolds explained. “I think we are witnessing a shift in the culture of institutional medicine as we bring along new generations of physicians who are better educated about mental disorders and their treatment and issues related to suicide as we reach out to students, make counseling services available to them, educate them about these issues. That supports a cultural shift that gradually erodes the issue of stigma that has so long plagued appropriate help-seeking in medical institutions.”

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