400 doctors commit suicide each year. Would talking about it help?

Suicides account for 26% of deaths among physicians ages 25 to 39

Physicians commit suicide at a rate two times higher than the national average, but the subject remains taboo in the medical world, Alexandrea Sowa McPartland writes for The Atlantic.

Physicians have the highest suicide rate of any profession. So why haven't you heard about it?

According to McPartland, a physician who recently completed her residency, suicide accounts for 26% of deaths among physicians ages 25 to 39, compared with 11% of deaths among same-aged individuals in the general population.

McPartland notes that suicide might be more "expected" in older physicians "after years in an emotionally and often physically taxing profession," while young people "graduating from medical school and starting residency training should be one of the most exciting times in a physician's career." But, "it does not take long for physical and mental exhaustion to overtake a young doctor," she writes.

A 2006 University of Pennsylvania study found that doctors' burnout rate—which includes emotional exhaustion, depersonalization, and a lowered sense of personal accomplishment—increase from 4.3% to 55.3% during the first post-graduate year of training. By the end of the year, nearly one-third of the interns were found to have moderate depression.

Although many aspects of physician training—such as 80-hour workweeks and the stress of keeping up with expanding medical knowledge—can be "extremely stressful," no one factor can adequately account for the disparity in suicide rates among doctors and the general population, McPartland writes.

But she argues that "the complex issue is made only more complex by silence among medical professionals," who rarely discuss issues like depression and suicide. Although medical students are taught how to recognize symptoms of depression or suicidal thoughts in patients, they do not address the symptoms within the medical community.

Are we as depressed as we think? Doctors over-diagnose depression

A recent study found that just 50% of depressed interns sought services for mental health issues, according to McPartland.

The main reason? Professional stigma and threat of judgment from other physicians, McPartland writes. She adds that judgment from other members of the professional "serves as one of the largest roadblocks to seeking psychiatric care," adding, "And yet, there is not one doctor I know who would ever want a colleague to suffer."

McPartland says physicians must initiate dialogue about the issue—just as they hold difficult discussions with their patients—"to enact healthy behavior changes" (McPartland, The Atlantic, 9/16).

More resources on addressing mental health

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See our study on how hospitals can be proactive at managing behavioral health, and this accompanying video on why that matters so much—not just for patients' mental state, but for their physical health too.

The Daily Briefing also has covered how some hospitals are redesigning their facilities as they try to prevent patient suicides.

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