We Must Become Comfortable Talking about Physician Suicide

By  |  September 12, 2018 | 

I just heard.

A colleague, a man of integrity and warmth, a hard-working physician with ideals, ethics and many valued contributions, has taken his own life. His perspectives may have differed from mine at times, but every interaction was infused with respect. He was a good man.

Much has been written about the rate of suicide of physicians. One million Americans lose their doctors to suicide each year. Normally I would insert the word provider instead of the less inclusive physician, but in this case, I think there are special considerations that impact our devoted partners, our physician colleagues. The mountain they must climb to complete their education, their medical training, their residency, is very steep. It often leaves these committed and intelligent people with frightful mountains of debt.

And then they must provide care in a system that often forgets why it’s here – instead of focusing on making people well, we focus on manipulating metrics like length of stay, maximizing RVUs or seeing so many patients per hour. The very system that exists to serve the weak and wounded can become an inhumane and bureaucratic business that interferes with the very primitive impulse and guiding light that allowed these professionals to complete their vigorous training.

They may be victims of malpractice suits – reflections of our human frailties that then become exercises in public humiliation. The pressures of caring for the broken members of our world, the patients with untreated mental illness, the coexisting substance use disorder, the fragmentation of our families, the lack of resources for our patients, can feel unending. The job of curing becomes increasingly more difficult in world that, as Pamela Wible quotes in her article in The Washington Post, is “uncomfortable” talking about physician suicide.

It’s not that I don’t care about the other physicians who have made the tragic decision to end their lives. But it’s the physician that you know, and worked with, that contributed to the betterment of our profession, that makes you feel and understand the impact and urgency of this problem.

Please, I ask you, reach out to your colleagues. Talk with them, listen to them, share with them. Treat them with the respect and compassion they deserve. Find time to wrap your interactions with the balm of kindness. This can have more impact than you can imagine.

I hope my colleague’s family finds comfort in all that he has given.

C.S. Lewis once said, “No one ever told me that grief felt so like fear.” I want us all to share in this fear. Maybe sharing that will help us prevent future needless suicides.

One Comment

  1. Therese Franco, MD SFHM September 12, 2018 at 1:51 pm - Reply

    Thank you for this post, Tracy. I am sorry for the loss of your colleague. It is timely given that World Suicide Prevention Day was just this Monday, September 10th. Our quarterly meeting for the Pacific Northwest Chapter will be on the topic of physician suicide. We selected the topic after the tragic loss of one of our own here in Seattle. Our goal is to start a constructive and healing dialogue. Our hope is that, eventually, we’ll be able to address this evolving and significant public health issue locally, in small, but scalable ways.

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About the Author: Tracy Cardin

Tracy Cardin
Tracy Cardin, ACNP-BC, SFHM is the Associate Director of Clinical Integration at Adfinitas Health and also serves on SHM’s Board of Directors. Prior to this, she was the Director of NP/PA Services for the University of Chicago and worked in private practice for a group of excellent pulmonologists/intensivists for over a decade. She has been a member of SHM for over ten years and has over twenty years of inpatient experience, which seems incredible as she cannot possibly be that old! Her interests include integration of NP/PA providers into hospital medicine groups and communication in difficult situations. In her free time, she likes to run and lift, read and write and hang out on the front porch of her semi-restored Victorian house with her dear family and friends while drinking a fine glass of red wine and listening to whatever music suits her whimsy.

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