More people are dying because they commit suicide than in motor vehicle accidents this year. The number of suicides is rapidly approaching the number of deaths from breast cancer. The trend upward has been noted for the past decade.
Physicians are the professional group with the highest rate of suicide. And studies have estimated that women physicians have as much as an eight fold rate of suicide compared to their male colleagues. Is this a crisis? I think so.
But what can we do? Recognize. Respond. Reconsider.
First we need to recognize that there is a problem–either with ourselves or in others. None of us is immune from the small (or not so small) daily doses of devaluation that women physicians tend to experience more than their male colleagues. Instead of pretending that we are not hurt by slights large and small (such as when we are mistaken for a nurse or the resident is addressed by the family as “the doctor” instead of us, as the attendings). And we all suffer from the rather large doses of increasing expectations from patients and a system is putting unprecedented burdens on physicians, the consequences of which are reflected in these startling statistics.
Next we need to respond. Most urgently is our need to be on the watch for our sisters in medicine who seem depressed, are giving up, are more negative than usual or have had a change in behavior. Any signs of burnout or overload should be cause for concern. Talk to them. Don’t be shy. Save a life. Be a friend, even if it is someone you don’t know very well.
Reconsider how we work. This is the long term plan. Under no circumstances should we belittle anyone who takes a different career path than the one we may have chosen. Schedule flexibility, getting off the track when needed, and taking time to reflect and refuel are all options that both women and men physicians need not just to survive but also to be happy.
Take a few minutes now to think about some of your colleagues and how they might be feeling. If you know anyone who is going through a tough time with a patient, a partner, a job change, health problems, or other family challenges, find a few moments to talk. Also, find out the resources in your community that are available for physicians in trouble. This doesn’t mean only addictions or anger management, where most of our efforts are focused. This means the mental health of the women physicians around us who we went to medical school with, trained with, and want to have a long collegial relationship with. Remember, it could be you one day.
Linda Brodsky is a pediatric surgeon who blogs at Women MD Resources.