The very people we depend upon to help us live healthy lives are ending their own in increasing numbers. Doctors, nurses, and medical students worldwide have a significantly higher suicide rate than their country’s general populations.
Why are medical professionals at a higher risk of committing suicide?
Mental Health Stigmas Contribute to Suicides
One would think that medical professionals dealing with depression, anxiety, and burnout would reach out to their professional peers—people who know that mental illness is a legitimate, treatable health issue—for support.
Sadly, the opposite is true.
Credibility and reputation are important to any human being, but in professions in which life and death are dependent upon an individual’s judgment, the fear of being discredited by colleagues and superiors is one reason why healthcare workers try to “suck it up” and sally forth. After all, this is what doctors and nurses were taught to do from the first day of their formal training.
“Although physicians seem to have generally heeded their own advice about avoiding smoking and other common risk factors for early mortality, they are decidedly reluctant to address depression, a significant cause of morbidity and mortality that disproportionately affects them.” — Dr. Louise B. Andrew, “Physician Suicide”, Medscape
When physicians certify the cause of death of another health professional, particularly one known to them, they often “clean up” after the suicide by whitewashing the issue. For example, they might list “accident” instead of “suicide” to protect the reputation of the deceased—or the image of the institution, This is according to Dr. Vinita Parkash in an opinion piece for The Hill.
For medical students, accidents are the leading cause of death with suicide being the second. How many of those “accidents” were either intentional or a result of the high rates of substance abuse in the medical community? Whether or not the cause of death is clear, the lack of reporting of suicides among medical professionals is akin to stifling a call for help. This industry and its personnel clearly need it.
Self-Medication, Opioid Addiction, and Overdoses
Intentional overdoses are among the leading methods of suicides among healthcare pro
viders. Overdoses listed as “accidental” are among other leading causes of death within the medical community.
When people don’t feel at liberty to seek psychiatric support, they might turn to alcohol or drugs as coping mechanisms. This is absolutely true among doctors, nurses, and med students. In fact, anesthesiologists are believed to be the first victims of the prescription opioid crisis as a result of their high-pressure work environments and their access to powerful drugs such as fentanyl, sufentanil, meperidine, and morphine. These addictions often begin in medical school, an environment touted as a crucible to “burn out” those deemed “weak” or lacking the fortitude and endurance required for a medical career.
When healthcare providers do to seek help for their chemical dependencies and underlying psychiatric conditions, the odds are against their ability to return to their professions, regardless of their success in recovery. While addiction specialists and healthcare administrators are working together to develop workplace reintegration strategies for recovering medical professionals, the fear of ruined careers and stigma discourages struggling health professionals from choosing the path to recovery.
The Means and Knowledge to Complete Suicide
Healthcare providers are more likely to have access to the types of drugs—and dosages—required to successfully commit suicide. They also know which methods are most likely to bring a suicide attempt to completion and how best to carry them out. As previously mentioned, medical professionals use intentional medication overdoses as one means of completing suicide; another common method is suicide by a self-inflicted gunshot.
“Physicians and nurses complete suicide more often than do average Americans; rates are even higher for women in both professions.” — Dr. Vinita Parkash
Female medical professionals don’t attempt suicide as frequently as women outside the medical field, but when they do, they are as much as four times as likely to complete the act.
Among white, middle-aged women, as Today reported in the wake of designer Kate Spade’s death, suicides have spiked by as much as 80 percent. (Suicides among all demographics are 24 percent higher now than they were in 1999, according to the Center for Disease Control and Prevention.)
Therefore, the statistical gap between female medical professionals and those of the same demographic outside the profession is all the more dramatic.
A New Meaning for Self Care
Regardless of gender, specialty in the medical field, the co-occurrence of psychological disorders, medical students and professionals deal with chaotic work environments, unrealistic expectations, unbalanced work and family lives, and grueling schedules. They also deal with the public’s negative perception of the healthcare system, and of course, from the burden of overwhelming student loan obligations.
Medical workers put their own well-being on the line to ensure the best outcomes for their patients. How can the healthcare industry help them honor their own physical, emotional, and mental health?
While leaders in the industry work to make positive changes doctors, nurses, and medical students—or anyone experiencing suicidal ideation—can reach out to the Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 1-800-273-8255 for help.