Conference Coverage

What brought me back from the brink of suicide: A physician’s story


William Lynes, MD, had a flourishing medical practice and a fulfilling family life with three children when he first attempted suicide in 1999 at age 45. By 2003, depression and two more suicide attempts led to his early retirement.

Dr. William Lynes, a retired urologist in Temecula, Calif.

Dr. William Lynes

In a session at the recent virtual American Psychiatric Association (APA) 2021 annual meeting, Dr. Lynes talked about the challenges of dealing with depression while managing the stresses of a career in medicine. The session in which he spoke was called, “The Suicidal Physician: Narratives From a Physician Who Survived and the Physician Widow of One Who Did Not.”

By writing and speaking about his experiences, he says, he has been able to retain his identity as a physician and avoid obsessive thoughts about suicide. He hopes conversations like these help other physicians feel less alone and enable them to push past stigmas to get the help they need. He suspects they do. More than 600 people joined the APA session, and Dr. Lynes received dozens of thankful messages afterward.

“I love medicine, but intrinsically, the practice of medicine is stressful, and you can’t get away,” said Dr. Lynes, a retired urologist in Temecula, Calif. “As far as feedback, it made me feel like it’s something I should continue to do.”

A way to heal

For Dr. Lynes, his “downward spiral into darkness” began with a series of catastrophic medical events starting in 1998, when he came home from a family vacation in Mexico feeling unwell. He didn’t bother to do anything about it – typical of a physician, he says. Then one night he woke up shaking with chills and fever. Soon he was in the hospital with respiratory failure from septic shock.

Dr. Lynes spent 6 weeks in the intensive care unit, including 4 weeks on a ventilator. He underwent a tracheostomy. He lost 40 pounds and experienced ICU-related delirium. It was a terrifying time, he said. When he tried to return to work 10 months later, he didn’t feel as though he could function normally.

Having once been a driven doctor who worked long hours, he now doubted himself and dreaded giving patients bad news. Spontaneously, he tried to take his own life.

Afterward, he concealed what had happened from everyone except his wife and managed to resume his practice. However, he was unable to regain the enthusiasm he had once had for his work. Although he had experienced depression before, this time it was unrelenting.

He sought help from a psychiatrist, received a diagnosis of bipolar disorder, and began taking medication. Still, he struggled to fulfill his responsibilities. Then in April 2002, he had a snowboarding accident that caused multiple facial fractures and required five operations. When he returned to work this time, he felt like a failure but resisted asking colleagues for help.

A few months later, Dr. Lynes again attempted suicide, which led to another stay in the ICU and more time on a ventilator. Doctors told his family they didn’t think he would survive. When he recovered, he spent time as an inpatient in a psychiatric ward, where he received the first of a series of electroconvulsive therapy sessions. Compounding his anxiety and depression was the inability to come to terms with his life if he were not able to practice medicine.

The next fall, in September 2003, his third suicide attempt took place in his office on a weekend when no one was around. After locking the door, he looked at his reflection in the frame of his medical school diploma. The glass was cracked. “It was dark, it was black, it was cold,” he said. “I can remember seeing my reflection and thinking how disgusted I was.”

For years after that, Dr. Lynes struggled with his sense of self-worth. He hid from the medical system and dreaded doctors’ appointments. Finally in 2016, he found new meaning at a writing conference, where he met a fellow physician whose story was similar to his. She encouraged him to write about his experience. His essay was published in Annals of Internal Medicine that year. “Then I started speaking, and I feel like I’m a physician again,” he said. “That has really healed me quite a bit.”


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