Physicians dedicate their lives to helping others. Yet many never get the help they themselves need, often with tragic consequences.
Recent data from the 2021 CMA National Physician Health Survey shows that:
36% of physicians and residents have had suicidal thoughts at some point in their life
- 14% had those thoughts within the last 12 months
- Women physicians are at higher risk than men (38% vs. 32% of men)
- Younger generations tend to have experienced suicidal ideation more in the past 12 months, particularly those aged 35 to 54 years (16%) and under the age of 35 (19%)
What drives physicians to suicide?
In a WellDoc Alberta podcast, Dr. Debrah Wirtzfeld and Dr. Jane Lemaire speak to Dr. Michael Myers, author of Why Physicians Die by Suicide: Lessons Learned from Their Families and Others Who Cared.
Dr. Myers explains that despite being trained in treating mental illness, it’s hard for physicians to recognize it in themselves. This means their illnesses often go undiagnosed. In fact, between 85 and 90% of people who die by suicide had lived with an undiagnosed and untreated mental illness.
Physicians are also taught to mask internal pain, which makes it hard for others to recognize the risk factors. These include previous suicide attempts — but because of the stigma surrounding mental illness, many physicians hide their previous attempts to end their lives and never seek psychological help.
Dr. Myers says the perfectionism that helps people get into medical school and succeed as physicians is a double-edged sword because it can also be detrimental to mental health. Frustrations over electronic health records, treadmill medicine, increasing workloads and loss of agency for change can also lead to physician burnout, depression and suicide.
Finally, Dr. Myers points out that physicians understand lethal actions better than most and often have access to the means of carrying them out.
How can physicians protect themselves?
Reducing physician suicide will require systemic change to transform medical culture. However, there are actions you can take today to support your own mental health:
- If you have experience with suicidal thoughts or attempts, talk openly about them to encourage colleagues to seek help.
- If you are experiencing dark thoughts, find someone to talk to about them. Don’t hesitate to “bother” someone with your psychological symptoms, including physicians on call. Also, don’t brush off serious depression, post-traumatic stress or bipolar disorder as simply burnout.
- Work with your provincial physician health program and get a primary care physician. Turn your health care over to someone you respect and trust instead of self-medicating.
- Set limits and seek balance. You can’t always accommodate everything or everyone, and sometimes you need to be a little selfish to help others.
- Seek and accept family support.
- Seek help for personal life concerns such as a disabled child, a troubled relationship, “sandwich generation” issues, and so on.
If you are in crisis:
Call 911 or go to the nearest hospital.
Call the Canada Suicide Prevention Service (available 24/7) at 1-833-456-4566. For residents of Quebec, call 1 866 APPELLE (1-866-277-3553).
If you are struggling:
Contact your local physician health program.
Are you in distress? Get help now.