Who are the doctors who end their own lives?

Recently, a fellow physician mom ended her life. While outwardly, a very vibrant, lively, and happy woman, she fought her own internal demons for some time. From what we know, she struggled with depression but was still committed to being a good mom, physician, and wife. Sadly, a few days before her birthday, she could no longer bear her sadness and decided to end her agony. I know many physicians’ lives follow these patterns. What shook me this time, though, was a discussion I had with a very close group of friends. These are all very highly educated professionals whom I love, respect, and admire. But, none are physicians.

While outwardly sympathetic, most were confused. “She was a physician … what was there to be depressed about?” Others asserted that “we don’t agree with this. No matter your suffering, how can you not think about your kids? Who does that?” That’s exactly the point! Who would do such a thing? Only someone who is so sad, miserable, and disturbed that not even the smile on her kids’ faces, their promising futures nor her unconditional, or her undying love for them could save her! That is who does this! They still didn’t understand. “It can’t be that bad!”

Well, let’s examine how bad it really is. Every day, physicians are ripped apart piece by piece, layer by layer, until there is nothing else but our torn, bruised, naked, and tired core. At work, we are abused by the system we work for. From the patient to the insurance company, we are the punching bags blamed for every failure. Patients can’t get in to see you at their whim because you’re constantly booked. The administrators want you to see more patients. There’s the never-ending documentation, paperwork, prior authorizations, and phone calls. Add the daily trauma we deal with to the mix. Our patients’ stories touch our hearts and souls, yet we can’t do anything other than be receptacles of their anguish, grief, and frustrations. We see all kinds of abuse, violence, and neglect from little children to adults. The misery accumulates deep within us. On the outside, it may harden us, but the turmoil it causes within is not something that can be explained in a few words.

So, maybe you had a great day where no one cursed you out, you weren’t an hour behind in clinic, you didn’t get a bad evaluation, and you might’ve just dodged a bullet … literally and figuratively. But what awaits you in your personal life is still anyone’s guess: “Are the kids doing OK? I hope they’re not getting bullied. Is that marijuana I smell? Why are they so withdrawn? Is that too much time on the phone? I think my child is depressed and has anxiety! I’m pretty sure I’m a failure as a mother – I’ll never make it to any of the PTO meetings!” This is the background noise that constantly surrounds you.

And how is that wonderful spouse doing? When were you last intimate? Did you cook dinner? What are your vacation plans? Do you have any vacation? And what are all these bills that keep piling up? The list is endless!

We sit in tears, sweat, and anguish, somehow hoping the Wonder Woman or Superman in us will wake up, take over, and everything will be OK! I’m tired of being written off as a “Super Mom” or “Wonder Woman.” Does anyone stop and think of the kind of stress this puts on all of us? To be these creatures who are supposed to find this unknown balance in life?

How many of us go to meetings and seminars where the focus is on work-life balance? Well, if you’ve found it, please share it with the rest who are struggling because it’s not working so well. It is depressing to read about another physician mom or dad who couldn’t take it anymore. And, while the system takes its own sweet time changing, all I hope for is a little understanding, a little compassion, and love, just like we show it to everyone else. We don’t want to end our lives – no one does until it’s the only thing that can end the pain. Try to think of how miserable a person, physician or not, must be to think that this is their only escape. Even if you did all you could to help them and you still could not save them, give them the benefit of doubt. I understand that their action may anger you, but it’s nothing compared to the anger and disappointment they felt for themselves. Instead, pray that they have found peace, pray for their loved ones that they have left behind, and pray that this profession changes fast enough so that healing hands don’t have to end their own lives.

Thank you to Rayyan Abid who helped edit this article.

Fariha Shafi is an internal medicine physician.

Image credit: Shutterstock.com

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