I sat with him for hours. We spoke and spoke and spoke at length over why he could no longer be happy. He changed jobs, and his new job did not work out. He felt guilty for moving his family to another state, and he felt like a failure in his new job. Nothing I could say made a difference, and I felt powerless to help him. Then, he got a new – very lucrative – job in a different state. I was so happy for him, full of hope that he would get a new start in his new job out of state.
On his first day, he never showed up. When they went to look for him, they found him dead in his hotel room. He went to a gun show, bought a rifle, and shot himself in the chest. I was absolutely speechless in shock and full of grief for him and his family.
This is the face of physician suicide.
He was a very accomplished physician, with so much to offer his patients, the communities in which he served them, and his colleagues, including me. He had so much more good to do for so many years to come. All that came to an abrupt and horrific halt when he took his own life. It is so tragic on so many levels.
September 17 is National Physician Suicide Awareness Day. Approximately 300-400 physicians die by suicide every year, a rate that is more than twice the general population. Any suicide by anyone is an unmitigated tragedy. It is a senseless loss of life, and the concentric circles of grief and sorrow extend well beyond the individual taking his or her own life.
The suicide of a physician – or nurse or any other healthcare professional – is a double tragedy, because now we have lost a healer. We have lost someone who dedicated their lives to help heal the sick and injured. When the healer cannot be healed, it is a problem for all of us, and it is so important that we are aware of this problem and deal with it head on.
The Covid-19 pandemic was very difficult on all of us. We have, I have, seen horrors that cannot be unseen. We have, I have, experienced tragedy on scale that was truly unprecedented. It has left scars on our souls that will last a lifetime. And for some of us, those scars continue to hurt to the point of hopelessness and despair that may lead to suicide.
Please. If you are hurting, please get help. Please. The Physicians Foundation developed the HEART acronym to help us identify the warning signs (or “vital signs”) of physician suicide:
- Health: Talking about wanting to hurt themselves
- Emotions: Feeling hopeless or having no purpose
- Attitude: Having outbursts of anger or sadness
- Relationships: Withdrawing or isolating themselves from family, friends, and coworkers
- Temperament: Acting anxious or agitated; behaving recklessly
Here are some other resources to get help:
- National Suicide Prevention Hotline: 24/7, free and confidential support for people in distress, prevention and crisis resources for you or your loved ones.
- *NEW* – The U.S. has transitioned from the 10-digit National Suicide Prevention Lifeline to 988. Dial this number the same way you would 911.
- Or, use Lifeline Chat on the web
- Crisis Text Line: The Crisis Text hotline is available 24/7 throughout the U.S. The Crisis Text Line serves anyone in any type of crisis, connecting them with a crisis counselor who can provide support and information. Text “HELLO” to 741741
- NAMI, the National Alliance on Mental Illness, is the nation’s largest grassroots mental health organization dedicated to building better lives for the millions of Americans affected by mental illness.
Many employers have an Employee Assistance Program (EAP). Please use it. In my organization, we have a free Peer Responder Program, where trained peers are available 24/7 to talk to colleagues who need help. I am blessed and honored to be one of those Peer Responders. Please get help. You are not alone, and please do not suffer alone.
As I said above, any suicide is an absolute tragedy. I have cared for numerous patients who have successfully taken their lives, and it is a tragedy of untold proportions. It is horrific to see. The suicide of a healer is that much worse. We all need to be aware of it and do everything we can to prevent it from happening.