Time to talk about physician mental health

Physicians tend to be healthier than the general population – they smoke less, eat better, exercise more, are less likely to be obese and report fewer chronic health conditions.

However, physicians have a much greater risk of dying by suicide.

According to a recent Medscape study, the medical profession “consistently hovers near the top of occupations with the highest risk of death by suicide,” with an estimated 300 to 400 such deaths each year.

Why is suicide so common among physicians? The Medscape authors explore a number of potential factors – including possibly higher rates of depression among doctors, who are also less likely to seek treatment for the condition or recognize it in a colleague. Physicians also work in high-stress, high-consequence environments, often with long hours and significant administrative and regulatory demands. They sometimes face the added stress of malpractice litigation.

When you think about it, it’s really no wonder that doctors are reporting increasing rates of job dissatisfaction and burnout. And it’s incumbent upon everyone in the medical profession – especially clinical leaders – to become better educated about the signs and symptoms of depression, burnout or suicide in physicians so we can help identify and support at-risk colleagues or ask for help when we need it ourselves.

September was Suicide Prevention Awareness Month – an occasion for many provider organizations to focus on these issues and promote a stigma-free conversation around physicians’ mental health. This year saw the first National Physician Suicide Awareness Day, on Sept. 17, for which Mayo Clinic launched a toolkit for medical school students. Provider groups like TeamHealth used podcasts, videos, articles and social media discussions with the #SpeakUpSaveLives18 hashtag to engage clinicians about wellness, burnout, suicide prevention and the resources available to support mental health.

Employee assistance programs, for example, often provide an anonymous way to seek advice, counseling, referrals or other resources. And the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline offers 24/7, free and confidential support for people in distress, as well as prevention and crisis resources (1-800-273-8255).

In addition, it’s important for provider organizations to foster a supportive culture where doctors feel comfortable talking to their medical director, or department head, or a close colleague when they feel depressed, overwhelmed or burnt out. Because physicians sometimes avoid coming forward out of fear for negative repercussions on their job or reputation, TeamHealth implemented a program that offers a safe and non-punitive pathway to evaluation, treatment and return to practice.

The statistics are glaring. But when we work together to better support physician mental health, we can potentially help save a career, save a family or even save a life.

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