Even as healthcare professionals battle the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic, with more than 300 Americans dying each day on average from the virus, doctors nationwide are raising awareness about the growing epidemic of suicide within their ranks.
Saturday, Sept. 17, is National Physician Suicide Awareness Day. It’s a day marking a sobering fact: physicians have a higher suicide rate than the general population, according to an article published in the science journal PLOS One.
Doctors dying by suicide means that patients lose good physicians. The growing number of suicides is a public health crisis, health professionals say.
According to a 2019 study in the Journal of the American Medical Association, depressed physicians may also commit more medical mistakes. Many physicians are hesitant to seek treatment due to the stigma and fear of losing their jobs.
“It’s a culture that rewards toughness” and “the emphasis is on caring for others, not for yourself,” said Dr. Mimi Winsberg, a psychiatrist and chief medical officer of Brightside, an online therapy organization.
Dr. Sansea Jacobson, a psychiatrist and program director of the Child and Adolescent Psychiatry Fellowship at the University of Pittsburgh Medical Center, says suicide is more likely to occur when multiple risk factors pile up.
“And most importantly, when they’re unaddressed or under addressed mental health issues,” said Jacobson.
She added, “We know as doctors that we have all the stressors and risk factors of the general public. Plus, we have our own unique stressors, like the pandemic, patient deaths, medical errors, and malpractice lawsuits.”
In response to the crisis, President Joe Biden signed the Dr. Lorna Breen Health Care Provider Protection Act into law in March. The law establishes grants to promote and study ways to improve mental health for health care providers.
The bill was named after Dr. Lorna Breen, an emergency medicine physician who died of suicide in April 2020, at the beginning of the pandemic. She may have feared losing her medical license and did not get help, according to a foundation set up in her honor.
The Dr. Lorna Breen Heroes’ Foundation recently helped to launch ALL IN, a campaign that hopes to remove mental health questions from forms that doctors fill out prior to getting a medical license.
There are several steps that a physician, or anyone dealing with a mental health crisis, can take, experts say.
“The first thing to do is to take an assessment. I always say that’s what gets measured gets managed, so I think understanding the scope of what you’re feeling is really important. And then the second thing is to seek help,” said Winsberg.
One silver lining of the pandemic is that it raised awareness of these issues, Winsberg said. She added, “Reducing stigma has made it more normal to express feelings of loneliness and depression and anxiety. I hope that that will spill over into the medical profession as well.”
Doctors can reach out on the Physician Support Line at 1 (888) 409-0141. The free and confidential hotline connects physicians to psychiatrists from 8:00 a.m. to 1:00 a.m. Eastern, 7 days a week.
Anyone struggling with mental health is also encouraged to dial 988, a nationwide number to connect to the Suicide and Crisis Lifeline.
Evelyn Huang, MD is a resident physician in emergency medicine from Northwestern Memorial Hospital, and a member of the ABC News Medical journalism rotation.