This month my institution lost a vibrant, talented member of our team to suicide.
Most likely, if you are in health care, you probably are thinking of a coworker you know who also took his or her own life.
Sadly, it is not uncommon.
I can’t stop thinking of his wife. His parents. All of the patients who will miss his excellent care and expertise.
Suicide is prevalent in health care workers, and physician suicide is a harsh reality. If you are a male physician you are 1.6x more likely to take your life, and if you are a female physician, 2.3x more likely to commit suicide than other women your age who aren’t physicians.
I watched the grief and sadness on the faces of our residents, nurses, and staff when we heard the news. While he wasn’t in my specialty, our entire department grieved.
He was one of us. He WAS us.
In my specialty, anesthesiology, if you are a male, you have the highest risk of taking your own life out of all physicians.
Dr. Pamela Wible, a family physician who devotes her career to addressing physician suicide, has shared that her message of awareness and calls to action hasn’t always been welcome in organized medicine. We are supposed to be the healers; yet sometimes we ourselves are in need of help.
Leaders in medicine are looking hard into solutions to address workplace burnout, which can aggravate and/or lead to depression. Burnout is common, real, and can lead to harmful behaviors in health care providers and errors in judgment that can harm patients.
When burnout is prevalent, nobody wins.
In my opinion, we are in a serious crisis. We must appoint leaders whose single vision and mission is to address burnout. Some organizations, such as Stanford and others, are doing this. They are appointing physicians in top leadership positions to lead multidisciplinary teams to address micro and macro level burnout in their organizations and in universities.
It’s a first step. It says that we are taking the health of the healers seriously. Recently, my organization took this first step, and I am grateful. We have work to do, and we recognize it.
It’s going to take more than appointing leaders, however. It is going to take grass root efforts for us to care for each other, for us to look out for one another, and for us to be brave enough to bring issues that cause workplace stress into the light. We need to create a culture where we can bring problems and solutions to decision-making tables.
It takes courage to hold the flash-light, to shine a light on issues that are unhealthy, inefficient and overwhelming in health care. But we must. We must bring these issues and solutions to administrators and hospital leadership. And in the midst of economical stress and the do-more-with-less resources reality, we must think critically of how we will move toward wellbeing.
I don’t know all the answers, but I do know that we must care for our own. Every life is precious, including those who work tirelessly to put others first.
We must recognize each health care worker is crucial to our successes and look out for those who are tired, emotionally exhausted, and need to recharge. We need to stop glorifying those who “work harder and longer” than everyone else.
Is that the culture we want to create? Is that the behavior we want to reward and pass on to the next generation of physicians and health care personnel?
My hope is that we take a hard look at our systems, practices, and cultures. My hope is that we appoint leaders and give time to teams to evaluate and improve burnout in our systems. My hope is that we make it OK for people who are under stress and having emotional distress to speak to someone who is ready to listen.
We are smart. We save lives.
Let’s start saving our own.
Sasha K. Shillcutt is an anesthesiologist who blogs at Brave Enough.
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