In 2020, the headlines were everywhere:
“Physician Suicide Is a Daily Occurrence.”
“Doctor’s death by suicide sends shockwaves through Canada’s medical community.”
“Lorna Breen, an ER doctor who continued to treat patients after she recovered from COVID-19, has died by suicide.”
“Doctor’s Suicide a Tragic Wake-up Call.”
Doctors have always worked day in and day out in what amounts to a war zone. In 2019, the American Psychiatric Association reported that 400 doctors die from suicide each year in the United States alone. Even before the COVID-19 pandemic, burnout was driving physicians to take their own lives at double the rate of the general population.
The industry’s culture of stoicism and stigma against asking for help is a real, institutionalized issue. Doctors cannot take breaks. They cannot check in on each other. Regulatory and cultural reinforcement tell them that asking for help is career suicide.
What can be done to help our doctors?
We recently conducted a survey via our partner, Sermo, the online community of over 1.3 million healthcare professionals across 150 countries, to see how doctors are doing. Three out of four said the pandemic has exacerbated their burnout, and almost 80 percent said healthcare provider burnout should be a high-priority issue for the industry.
This is a multifactorial issue that creates a culture of silence among doctors. They are taught in medical school to remain stoic and not show emotion. During their residencies and beyond, they have a real human need to compartmentalize what they see and experience. Doctors who raise their hands and ask for help can be severely penalized. There is the potential for them to lose their licenses, practices and livelihoods.
When doctors apply for medical licenses, malpractice insurance and their credentials, the applications they fill out include questions about their mental health history.
“Many of the mental health questions on these applications appear right next to questions about your criminal background — reinforcing that getting formal help is unacceptable and can have negative repercussions,” said Corey Feist, brother-in-law of Dr. Lorna Breen, co-founder of the Dr. Lorna Breen Heroes Foundation and a recent panelist at the Schwartz Center-hosted discussion, When Healthcare “Heroes” Need Help: Destigmatizing Mental Illness in the Healthcare Workforce.
Disappearing Doctors is working layer by layer to identify and tackle the root causes of this mental health pandemic. We aim to change the culture from the outside through awareness and legislation, and to provide healthcare systems and providers with the tools needed to do the work from inside their organizations.
We’ve formed an action committee of like-minded experts to confront these challenges, and we invite you to join us. Hospital systems and other medical institutions, insurance providers and policymakers, as well as those affected firsthand — doctors, along with their colleagues and families — can join us in our mission to heal those who heal us.
It’s time for solutions, not stigma.
For more information on Disappearing Doctors, visit www.disappearingdoctors.com.