Experts: Even before COVID, physician suicide a major issue
Though the COVID-19 pandemic has put nearly all Americans under increased stress, there is one group that has been hit especially hard — physicians.
“The stressors associated with COVID are enormous,” said Sharon Kiely, vice president and chief wellness officer at Hartford Healthcare.
“The things tend to make us all healthy — self care, adequate sleep — in COVID, those things went away. People were working longer hours. There was more uncertainty.”
September is National Suicide Prevention Month and Thursday was Physician Suicide Awareness Day. For many, this is a time to highlight the risk of suicide in all populations, particularly at such a traumatic time.
Kiely and other experts pointed out that, even before the pandemic, physicians had high rates of burnout, depression and suicide. According to the American Foundation for Suicide Prevention, about 300 physicians die by suicide in the U.S. every year. The foundation also reports that the suicide rate among male physicians is 1.41 times higher than the general male population.
The rate among female physicians is 2.27 times greater than the general female population.
There are many reasons for that, according to Dr. Andre Newfield, chairman of psychiatry at St. Vincent’s Medical Center in Bridgeport, which is part of Hartford HealthCare. For one thing, he said, research has shown that doctors are less likely to seek help than the general population.
“They’re scared their license will be taken away,” Newfield said. “There certainly is a stigma (attached to mental health issues) and they might be worried about how supervisors or colleagues might look at them. They also might not feel like admitting the problem to themselves is acceptable.”
That’s especially true during the pandemic, he said, when so many people are relying on doctors for help. “Taking a moment to think about what we experienced has been rather challenging itself,” Newfield said.
Indeed, COVID has seemed to heighten the already pervasive problem of physician suicide. At the height of the pandemic, many doctors were battling stress and uncertainty, Kiely said. In addition to the lack of sleep and the steady flow of patients, she said, many found the pandemic disrupted the way they did their jobs.
“Many doctors had to switch to telehealth and they had to learn to do that,” she said. “Some had to work in areas of the hospital that they were not familiar with. They were trained, but that can be unsettling.”
One of the more high-profile deaths was that of Lorna Breen, a physician who died by suicide in April after contracting COVID-19, and returning to work at a New York hospital that was inundated with patients. In her honor, her family established the Dr. Lorna Breen Heroes Foundation, which works to reduce physician burnout, and lessen the stigma surrounding mental health issues, particularly among doctors.
“We envision a world where seeking mental health services is universally viewed as a sign of strength for health care professionals,” the foundation’s website reads.
Locally, Kiely and Newfield said St. Vincent’s and Hartford HealthCare are also encouraging any physicians in need to seek help. Kiely said the system has a colleague support line that is open around the clock for any employees experiencing difficulty. Newfield said the system is also working on peer support programs, so people can offer each other help.
“We’ve been really very focused on what our colleagues need to take care of our patients and take care of themselves,” Kiely said. “My message to anyone out there working in health care is that these are unprecedented times. If you need help, now is the time to ask for it.”
If you or someone you know is in an emergency, call The National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 800-273-TALK (8255) or call 911 immediately.