National Physician Suicide Awareness Day: Let’s try to dig a little deeper for more love

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We wrote this blog on National Physician Suicide Awareness Day. As a chapter wellness champion for the American College of Physicians, I have spent the past few months planning on what this September should entail. From Webinars to Facebook pages to tweets, I’ve included anything that I could to let my friends and colleagues know that they are not alone. There is a way out: we just have to keep looking for it.

As I’ve organized these resources, I’ve had to remind myself that this message extends to everyone, including myself. The last few months have been strange, to say the least, and most of my patients come in just to ask for a therapy session, and I feel privileged to have gained their trust over the years. So, I sit and talk with them about how this pandemic has uprooted lives, how my sober patients of eight years succumb to their addictions, and their admittances of dietary indiscretions. The hopelessness in their voices brings tears to my eyes as I fog up my shield. We hold hands and sanitize a lot!

My children and their teachers are trying to figure out a new norm of virtual education. The only issue is, it’s not normal. It has been a mess, adding to their stress and mine. Because now, after listening to the hopelessness at work, I come home and listen to the tenuous situations of my kids, my students, and my friends, some of whom are teachers. And I have to remind myself and them, “It’s going to be OK!” Let’s try to focus on the bigger picture here and get through this.

Over the weekend, my son and I had a real heart to heart chat because he disappeared on me for a couple of hours … driving! I asked him if he was doing OK.

“Why are you asking me that, mom?”

I told him that I was worried. I saw his sadness and the loss of control that he felt. He acknowledged that and also that he was angry. Angry that people would not take this pandemic seriously, angry that people couldn’t sacrifice their privilege, and angry that we won’t even go to Costco anymore because as soon as people get in, they take off their masks. Angry that they might force him to go to school in person full time when we were clearly given a choice earlier, angry that our leadership is constantly giving us mixed messages and lying to satisfy a political agenda, and angry because he hasn’t gone anywhere or done anything fun since March. He wants his life back. Why won’t everyone help him do that for all of us?

The next morning, we found out his friend and fellow band member had ended his own life. He probably had the same questions. He probably wanted his normal life back. He wanted his band family and his friends. Not all teens are shown compassion and love in all spheres and definitely not by all their peers in school. Still, this amazing kid rose above all of that and was always there for everyone. At the celebration of life, my son said that he envied him because he never changed himself for others. He lived his truth and stayed true to himself until the end. Other parents and students echoed these qualities of selflessness, compassion, and empathy. All he asked in return was a little bit of the same. He made me think of all the physicians, embodying these same qualities, who ended their lives in the past year. They were likely asking for the same compassion. His grandma and his dad asked everyone to dig a little bit deeper and show the love we are capable of giving. “Never leave anyone alone, whether it’s recess, lunch, class, or life.”

With that, they bid him farewell in true marching band style, a traditional dismissal. Their leaders stood in the middle of the circle with the rest of them around with red balloons (it was his favorite color). They started their chant, from the depths of their heart, towards the sky. You could hear their angst and agony. And on the count of three, the balloons were let go. All this happened while socially distanced and masked up. Even his spirit would not allow anyone to be inconvenienced or put at risk. Then, what is wrong with those of us that are alive?

Someone very close to me said that when that dark cloud turns into a hand engulfing your heart, it’s hard to see any light. Your beautiful children, the love of your life, your parents, success, nothing seems to be able to push through that darkness. That’s when we need each other even more. So not only on National Physician Suicide Awareness Day or the month of September, which brings awareness about suicide, but for every single day of our lives, let’s try to reach out and dig a little deeper for a little more love. That one “hello” could mean the world to someone in their darkest moment.

Fariha Shafi is an internal medicine physician. Rayyan Abid is a student.

Image credit: Shutterstock.com

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