400 doctors commit suicide every year. (At least, those are the numbers we know about. This is an estimate, according to a 2015 study by Andrew and Brenner, published on Medscape.1)
Thousands more suffer from depression, anxiety and other mental illnesses that make it hard to do their jobs, especially on the schedules our industry forces us to keep. It’s estimated that 1 out of every 3 physicians is experiencing burnout at any given time.2
All over our country, all over the world, doctors are jumping off the roofs of hospitals or clinics, overdosing in call rooms and hanging themselves in hospital chapels. They’re taking their own lives because they have no way to deal with the stress, abuse and impossible situations they’re put in, every single day.
As doctors, we’re put through the crucible we call medical school. We start as some of the highest achieving students in our graduating classes, then we’re broken down over time, melted and reforged into people who will keep going to heal our patients, despite the risk to ourselves.
We’re constantly told we’re not good enough. We’re put in stressful situations where we’re forced to work 24 hour shifts with little food and no rest. If we complain, we’re told to “suck it up.” This is what life as a doctor is like and we’d better get used to it.
When we move from school to practice, we’re not given the time to treat patients properly. We’re reprimanded, punished or fired if we do give a patient the time and effort they need to heal. Treatment decisions are made for us by insurance companies and hospital and clinic administrators. We have no autonomy and no way to fulfill the calling we answered, to be a healer.
We aren’t given the time to recuperate from our job, much less maintain relationships with friends, family and loved ones. If there is stress at home, it can easily exacerbate an already stressful work situation, to the breaking point.
If we suffer the loss of a family member, friend or colleague, we’re not allowed the time to grieve. If we lose a patient, we’re blamed by the family, our employers and the insurance companies. We risk being sued and shamed in the public eye. And we carry a horrible, overwhelming guilt for being unable to save a life that was entrusted to us.
Our colleagues are dying because they don’t feel they’re allowed to turn to anyone for help when it all becomes too much. If they admit they’re burned out, depressed or feeling suicidal, they risk losing their jobs and their licenses. Instead, they bottle it all up until it hits the bursting point and a tragedy occurs.
This is an epidemic of epic proportions. At least 1 million people are affected directly and indirectly, every time we lose another doctor. Families, friends, colleagues and patients all suffer greatly when their doctor takes his or her own life. Equally importantly, communities lose a precious resource. A person who truly cares about taking care of and healing the community’s members.
It is up to us to curb this epidemic. To make sure our colleagues get the help they need, before it’s too late. And to change the system that drives some of us to desperation and self-harm.
We can find a cure to this horrible problem by working together to save our colleagues from this tragedy.
Our goal is to directly reduce the number of medical physicians committing suicide through advocacy efforts. We want to make it easier for physicians in need of mental health care or counseling to get the help they need, and to reduce the stigma surrounding doctors with mental health issues.
These efforts include impacting public policies around mental health services and changing the culture of the medical profession. Medical physicians must be allowed to be humans again, and no longer the super-human, error-free Gods and Goddesses society assumes and pressures them to be.
I have taken this project on because I have personally experienced the impact of the toll the medical profession can take on a doctor’s health. I drove myself to the brink of exhaustion, believing that I was being a successful doctor. I missed out on many family gatherings and invitations from friends, so I could focus exclusively on my patients.
One night, driving home from yet another all-night shift (one of several in a row) I fell asleep at the wheel of my car. I could have died. All because the medical industry is set up to push us until we fall apart, or we stop caring and just “do our jobs.”
I have received countless calls from doctors who have been fired because they sought help for their depression. I have also received countless calls from doctors who have attempted suicide and didn’t complete the process. These people are hurting. And our industry is slow to do anything about it.
As doctors, there is a very serious stigma around seeking help for depression, anxiety or any other mental condition. Because we have to report this when we apply for, or renew our medical licenses, we are at risk of losing those licenses or being investigated by our employers if we tell the truth. There is also a perceived risk of losing the respect of our colleagues and patients.
The people society needs most to be well-adjusted and mentally stable suffer in silence, as they put all their efforts in to healing everyone else. Yet they are not allowed to heal.
You probably have a colleague who committed suicide. You may not even know they died by suicide because your employer may have covered it up. Called it a heart attack or a brain aneurysm.
As doctors, we’re not allowed the time to grieve that everyone else receives. We may lose a family member, a patient, or a colleague. Yet we’re pushed back to work as soon as possible, because our patients need us.
This must change.
And we can do it with your help.
Your donation can help save the life of a colleague by getting them the mental health services they so desperately need.
The first thing the Medical Moguls Wellness Project will set up and fund is a crisis intervention system that will give mental health counseling to doctors who need it immediately, free of charge. I have a network of mental health providers who are willing to deliver counseling via telemedicine. This system will be anonymous and private. Nothing will go on a physician’s work or insurance record.
After the initial consultation, a doctor will be able to decide whether they would like to continue with therapy. Again, nothing will go on their record, regardless of their decision.
This gives doctors the freedom to ask for help, without risking their jobs or licenses, a huge concern in our industry. It also alleviates concerns about losing the respect of colleagues, another reason cited by many doctors for why they won’t seek help.
Many doctors who say they would seek help for mental health issues when asked, find themselves so mired in their own depression, they are unable to do so when they are facing the choice between asking for help and suicide.
My hope is that by giving doctors someone to turn to anonymously, they’ll take advantage of this opportunity and turn away from suicide when it feels like their only option.
Next, we will partner with state, regional and national organizations to address the problem of physician suicide. We’ll work directly with doctors to remove the stigma that showing signs of burnout and stress is a weakness.
We want to show that this is a normal part of our profession and that it’s okay to ask for help when you need it. It’s part of being human to go through rough times and there are better ways to deal with the stress than stuffing it deep inside until it explodes.
We’ll also work state licensing boards, hospitals, clinics and insurance companies to remove the requirement to report treatment of mental health. This is a violation of doctors’ privacy. If a doctor is in treatment for mental health issues, they are far less of a liability and their willingness to work on their problems shouldn’t be held against them.
We hope that once doctors realize they won’t be penalized for seeking treatment, they’ll be more likely to get help when they need it.
Finally, and equally importantly, we’ll support minority women who are seeking to join the medical field and educate on the importance of having a diverse workforce in medicine to serve the diverse communities we all work in.
By working to create a culture of diversity, inclusion and support, we hope to reduce the number of physician suicides annually.
Sometimes, the most important factor in a doctor’s decision to seek help is a fellow physician showing concern and offering solutions.
We’ll also rely on you, our Medical Moguls and fellow doctors to reach out to your colleagues in distress and tell them about the resources available to them through the Medical Moguls Wellness Program, as well as other local, regional and national organizations.
The big push here is to get help for these doctors in their time of crisis, instead of after it’s too late.
Working together, we can stem the flow of medical physician suicides. And we can bring more awareness to this nationwide problem by talking about it, to each other and within our professional organizations.
For far too long, this has been a “dirty little secret” in our industry. We all know it exists, but there is no actual record of how many doctors commit suicide each year. 400 is an educated estimate. We don’t know the true numbers, because it’s not properly tracked. Clinic and hospital administrators cover up known suicides, under the guise of them being “bad for business.”
We need to bring this into the light and show support for each other. We all go through bad spells. It’s part of being human. For doctors, this can be made so much worse because of:
This problem is incredibly treatable. Doctors can manage stress, depression, mental illness and burnout when they seek help. But our code of silence prevents all of us from getting the help we need and from supporting each other and encouraging each other to seek that help when we need it.
Help me break this code of silence. Join me in changing the way our industry perceives mental health.
Even though more awareness is being brought to this issue, our industry can be incredibly slow to change.
Especially when it involves exposing our ugly underbelly and revealing how poorly many doctors are treated by their employers and how money drives decisions more often than what’s right for the doctor, or the patient (or both).
Therefore, we must stand up for our colleagues in their time of need.
It is up to us, as medical physicians to talk to each other about this problem. To make it clear to each other and to residents just starting out in programs that this is a stressful job and if you are burned out, depressed or need help, to ask for it.
It is up to us to make help accessible to those who desperately need it, before the worst happens. And to make access to this help anonymous, to remove the stigma associated with getting mental health treatment in the medical industry.
Finally, it is up to us to change the culture that stigmatizes asking for help as negative, and driving ourselves to exhaustion, and beyond, as positive.
We, as doctors, have the power to change all of these things when we band together.
Most importantly we have the ability to stop the epidemic of physician suicides locally, regionally, and nationally. To shine a light on a very dark issue, so we can all see and address it, together.
Support your colleagues who need help breaking out of the vicious cycle they’re in get the treatment they need to continue being the excellent physicians we all know they are.
Together, we can prevent physician suicide and make our industry a better, happier, stronger place to practice.
Please donate to the Medical Moguls Wellness Project today.
5American Foundation for Suicide Prevention. Ibid.
6American Foundation for Suicide Prevention. Ibid.