Why physicians die by suicide
Working in health care can be extremely stressful, even in the best of times, said Michael Myers, MD, a psychiatrist at State University of New York, Brooklyn, and author of the book, “Why Physicians Die By Suicide: Lessons Learned From Their Families and Others Who Cared.”
Years of school and training culminate in a career in which demands are relentless. Societal expectations are high. Many doctors are perfectionists by nature, and physicians tend to feel intense pressure to compete for coveted positions.
Stress starts early in a medical career. A 2016 systematic review and meta-analysis of 183 studies from 43 countries showed that nearly 30% of medical students experienced symptoms of depression and that 11% reported suicidal thoughts, but only 15% sought help.
A 2015 review of 31 studies that involved residents showed that rates of depression remained close to 30% and that about three-quarters of trainees meet criteria for burnout, a type of emotional exhaustion and sense of inadequacy that can result from chronic stress at work.
The stress of medical training appears to be a direct cause of mental health struggles. Rates of depression are higher among those working to become physicians than among their peers of the same age, research shows. In addition, symptoms become more prevalent as people progress through their training.
The COVID-19 pandemic has added stress to an already stressful job. Of more than 2,300 physicians surveyed in August 2020 by the Physicians Foundation, a physicians advocacy organization, 50% indicated that they experienced excessive anger, tearfulness, or anxiety because of the way the pandemic affected their work; 30% felt hopeless or lacking purpose; and 8% had thoughts of self-harm related to the pandemic. Rates of burnout had risen from 40% in 2018 to 58%.
Those problems might be even more acute in places experiencing other types of crises. A 2020 study of 154 emergency department (ED) physicians in Libya, which is in the midst of a civil war, found that 65% were experiencing anxiety, 73% were showing signs of depression, and 68% felt emotionally exhausted.
Every story is different
It is unclear how common suicide is among physicians. One often-repeated estimate is that 300-400 physicians die by suicide each year, but no one is certain how that number was determined, said Dr. Myers, who organized the APA panel.
Studies on suicide are inconsistent, and trends are hard to pinpoint. Anecdotally, he has received just as many calls about physician suicides in the past year as he did before the pandemic started.
Every person is different, and so is every death. Sometimes, career problems have nothing to do with a physician’s suicide, Dr. Myers said. When job stress does play a role, factors are often varied and complex.
After a 35-year career as a double board certified ED physician, Matthew Seaman, MD, retired in January 2017. The same month, a patient filed a complaint against him with the Washington State medical board, which led to an investigation and a lawsuit.
The case was hard on Dr. Seaman, who had continued to work night shifts throughout his career and had won a Hero Award from the American Board of Emergency Medicine, said his wife, Linda Seaman, MD, a family practitioner in Yakima, Wash., who also spoke on the APA panel.
Dr. Seaman said that 2 years after the investigation started, her husband was growing increasingly depressed. In 2019, he testified in a deposition. She said the plaintiff’s attorney “tried every way he could to shame Matt, humiliate Matt, make him believe he was a very bad doctor.” Three days later, he died by suicide at age 62.
Looking back at the year leading up to her husband’s death, Dr. Seaman recognizes multiple obstacles that interfered with her husband’s ability to get help, including frustrating interactions with psychiatrists and the couple’s insurance company.
His identity and experience as a physician also played a role. A couple of months before he died, she tried unsuccessfully to reach his psychiatrist, whose office suggested he go to the ED. However, because he worked as an ED doctor in their small town, he wouldn’t go. Dr. Seaman suspects he was wary of the stigma.
Burnout likely set him up to cave in after decades of work on the front lines, she added. Working in the ED exposes providers to horrific, traumatic cases every day, she said. Physicians learn to suppress their own emotions to deal with what they encounter. Stuffing their feelings can lead to posttraumatic stress. “You just perform,” she said. “You learn to do that.”