Teaching, writing, doing research, and speaking around the country excite me and keep me centered and grounded. I’ve been focused on my memoir the past two years.
As a part of my series about “Mental Health Champions” helping to promote mental wellness, I had the pleasure to interview Dr. Michael F. Myers.
Dr. Michael F. Myers, author of BECOMING A DOCTOR’S DOCTOR, is Professor of Clinical Psychiatry and recent past Vice-Chair of Education and Director of Training in the Department of Psychiatry & Behavioral Sciences at SUNY-Downstate Health Sciences University in Brooklyn, NY. He is the author or co-author of eight other books, including Why Physicians Die By Suicide, The Handbook of Physician Health and Doctors’ Marriages. His publications also include more than 150 articles covering such topics as marital therapy, men and reproductive technology, divorce, sexual assault of women and men, AIDS, the stigma of psychiatric illness, gender issues in training and medical practice, the treatment of medical students and physicians, boundary crossing in the doctor-patient relationship, and ethics in medical education and suicide. He has received multiple awards for excellence in teaching, and has served on the editorial boards of several medical journals. Along with his continuing clinical research, teaching and outreach in the field of suicide, Dr. Myers is a recent past President of the New York City Chapter of the American Foundation for Suicide Prevention. Dr. Myers lectures widely throughout North America and beyond on these subjects.
Thank you so much for doing this with us! Before we dig in, our readers would like to get to know you a bit. Can you tell us a bit how you grew up?
I grew up in Canada and always wanted to be a doctor. I write about my early years in my latest book Becoming a Doctors’ Doctor: A Memoir. I’m a specialist in physician health and have written multiple articles and previous books on doctors and their challenges, and I’ve produced a series of videotapes on depression and suicide in physicians.
You are currently leading a social impact organization that is helping to promote mental wellness. Can you tell us a bit about what you or your organization are trying to address?
I’m a professor of clinical psychiatry at SUNY Downstate Health Sciences University in Brooklyn, NY and teach medical students, resident physicians and faculty about the importance of personal wellness. It’s so basic yet often neglected. And it’s not just local. Self-care is my mantra in my international work with doctors too. It must seem odd that physicians, the guardians of life, might need something like that but it’s true. Most physicians put their patients — and other medically related matters like research and teaching — ahead of their personal health. This is altruistic and commendable but too many doctors pay a terrible price. They get burned out, depressed and suicidal, drink too much, and develop marital and family problems, to name a few consequences. I write extensively about this in two previous books “Why Physicians Die by Suicide: Lessons Learned from Their Families and Others Who Cared” and “Doctors’ Marriages: A Look at the Problems and Their Solutions.” Complicating the equation is that most physicians live with mega stigma about reaching out for professional help and soldier on without treatment — and end up feeling worse. The stigma is very real. Not only do they feel deeply embarrassed and diminished about needing help, but the worry they have about reporting illness and treatment on their medical license application is profound. My life’s work has been to end the discrimination against physicians who have suffered a mental illness, an illness that is not impairing their ability to practice safe and competent medicine.
Can you tell us the backstory about what inspired you to feel passionate about this cause?
My roommate Bill killed himself in 1962 over the Thanksgiving weekend. We were both first year medical students. I was the last person in our class to see him alive. His death was shocking. It didn’t make sense. This tragedy set me on a path of inquiry and speaking out. It shaped my career and, after graduating from medical school, led me into psychiatry and my subspecialty of physician health. I’ve never stopped fighting for transparency, and making it safe for students and doctors to open up about their vulnerabilities and wounds — and to seek professional help. And not be judged and discriminated against for simply being human. I dedicated my book on physician suicide to Bill and all other medical students and physicians who have killed themselves. I’m the mouthpiece for those who are no longer with us and those physicians living with a mental illness who cannot speak for themselves.
Many of us have ideas, dreams, and passions, but never manifest it. They don’t get up and just do it. But you did. Was there an “Aha Moment” that made you decide that you were actually going to step up and do it? What was that final trigger?
Yes, there was. This was the mid-1980s. More and more medical students and doctors were coming to see me, some quite ill when they called, and I was having trouble fitting them in. Then, one weekend, I got a call from a friend that a doctor who I knew had killed herself, after refusing to see anyone about her wild mood swings. I was stunned and heartbroken. That was it. Another suicide. The next day, I restricted my practice to only seeing medical students and doctors, and their families. I was determined to do all I could to make it easier for physicians to get help. And I began to speak out even louder and more broadly. I was on a number of physician health committees of major medical and psychiatric organizations, charged to study and correct this. I began to publish more, write more books and articles, and never refused an invitation to speak at grand rounds or medical meetings about this serious matter. I’ve been going non-stop ever since. At last count, approaching 1,000 talks.
Can you share the most interesting story that happened to you since you began leading your company or organization?
There are so many but here is one that is a prototype of the way too many doctors feel these days. It’s a story from my book Why Physicians Die by Suicide: Lessons Learned from Their Families and Others Who Cared.
Dr. Stone, a fifty-six-year-old internist, came to see me within days of being named in a lawsuit. The patient was a woman he had treated for many years, someone whom he thought was happy with her medical care. “I’m here because last weekend I decided I have two choices,” he told me, “to shoot myself and get it over with or to see a psychiatrist. I’m just kidding doc,” he quickly added. “Don’t take me seriously, I’m not going to kill myself. You don’t need to lock me up.” But I did take him seriously. He wasn’t suicidal (nor did he own a firearm) but he was certainly very unhappy, defeated, and sad. And he was very angry and bitter. “I’ve given my whole life to medicine and what have I got outta the deal?” He was tired from decades of twelve-hour days Monday through Friday and half days on Saturday. An athlete in college and medical school, he had let his nutrition and fitness fly out the window over the years. He was grossly overweight and out of shape, and that, too, preyed on him. In fact, he even brought in his graduation photo to illustrate his point. His voice broke as he gazed at the picture: “I don’t even recognize that handsome, cool ass dude.” I sat quietly and listened to his sobs. And I continued to listen and listen for many visits until he began to feel better and reclaim his life.
This is an example of my work and what makes it so worthwhile and personally gratifying.
None of us can be successful without some help along the way. Did you have mentors or cheerleaders who helped you to succeed? Can you tell us a story about their influence?
I’ve had so many mentors throughout my life. Role models, individuals whom I’ve wanted to emulate. Some whom I’ve never met but learned so much from. This started in medical school. The pediatrician who guided me through my first publication. My training director in Los Angeles who wrote an effusive letter of reference for me when I left internal medicine to pursue psychiatry studies. The chair of my Department of Psychiatry who always sent me a hand-written note upon reading my articles and books. The theme here is validation of your work, which of course spurs you to keep going. As I get older, my heart holds more and more gratitude for all of these individuals.
According to Mental Health America’s report, over 44 million Americans have a mental health condition. Yet there’s still a stigma about mental illness. Can you share a few reasons you think this is so?
Yes, there still is and it’s rampant in the world of medicine. I first wrote about stigma in doctors in the 1980s and when I became president of the Canadian Psychiatric Association in 2000, my theme was “New Century: Overcoming Stigma. Respecting Differences.” All of my books have sections on the pernicious effects of stigma and how stigma is killing our doctors. This is not an exaggeration. Whenever individuals hesitate to reach out for help and their symptoms worsen, this is wrong.
Stigma affects thinking and emotions. All looks bleak and suicidal thinking begins, and in too many, rapidly escalates. My research has shown that no fewer than 10–15 % of physicians who die by suicide have killed themselves without ever going for help. This is unconscionable and must stop. Today’s physicians are under tremendous strain and can benefit from therapy. In Becoming A Doctors’ Doctor, I give several examples of how stigma in physicians wrecks their self-esteem and makes them feel unworthy of being cared for, as a patient. This is so sad and unacceptable. I also write in that book about how stigma pushes some doctors to treat themselves with medications because they are so isolated with their anguish and ashamed to ask for help. In my other book on physician suicide, I describe what’s called enacted stigma or discrimination in the way questions are asked on medical licensing board applications or credentialing applications to hospitals. I spoke about this earlier. These are some examples of why I argue that stigma is insidious in the house of medicine and causing too many doctors to go without treatment, suffering needlessly, and putting themselves at risk of self-harm and death by suicide. A too common tragedy that has to stop.
In your experience, what should a) individuals b) society, and c) the government do to better support people suffering from mental illness?
- Individuals. We are all in this together. We must be our brothers’ and sisters’ keepers. I know this first-hand as a psychiatrist. So many psychiatric illnesses are elusive and confusing in how they manifest themselves, meaning if we’re the one with the symptoms it’s not that easy to figure out that we’re ill and need help. We need loved ones and friends to reach out to us, with kindness and compassion, and ask “Are you okay? I’m worried about you.” We have a responsibility to educate ourselves about these common illnesses — anxiety, depression, substance use disorders, PTSD — so that we know what to watch for in ourselves and each other. And we need to try to push through the stigma. We need to salute and honor those courageous and caring individuals who speak openly about their mental health struggles — and thank them — because they are truly “stigma busters” and their stories are a gift to all of us.
- Society. We need to pull together in collaboration and fight for the rights of those living with mental illness. This is teamwork and advocacy. It works. Look at NAMI — the National Alliance on Mental Illness — founded by families and friends of individuals with a psychiatric illness. We can join, we can learn, we can volunteer, we can fundraise by walking in the annual NAMI walks each year. We can speak out at work or in social groups when people are joking or speaking disparagingly about people with a mental illness. This takes courage and a bit of risk taking but the satisfaction of correcting misunderstandings is so rewarding. And it is possible to do this without shaming the folks talking like that, just by speaking up with heart and clarity. The National Academy of Medicine and the American Medical Association are only two examples of the many national medical groups that are fighting to support more individuals living with a mental illness and ensuring that they receive proper care.
- Government. Here is one example of what government can do to make change. It’s recent and tragic. When Dr. Lorna Breen, Chief of Emergency Medicine at the New York Presbyterian Allen Hospital, killed herself this past April while recovering from Covid-19, her grieving family quickly decided that things had to change. Dr. Breen who had no prior history of mental illness, was frightened that she would be judged for developing a depressive illness and requiring psychiatric hospitalization, and that she might lose her job. She was concerned about her medical license and its integrity. Her sister and brother-in-law were stunned by the magnitude of this and researched how much some medical licensing jurisdictions do ask intrusive questions about doctors’ health. They were galvanized into political action. They formed the Dr. Lorna Breen Heroes Foundation to educate and advocate for the rights of physicians. This led to the bill called Dr. Lorna Breen Health Care Provider Protection Act introduced to the Senate last July by Senator Tim Kaine of Virginia. It can be read-here: https://www.congress.gov/116/bills/s4349/BILLS-116s4349is.
What are some strategies you use to promote your own wellbeing and mental wellness? Can you please give a story or example for each?
- Teaching, writing, doing research, and speaking around the country excite me and keep me centered and grounded. I’ve been focused on my memoir the past two years.
- Regular exercise, healthy eating, and good sleep are essential.
- Music. I’ve been studying piano for decades, including weekly lessons. Playing the piano transports me away from everyday worries and mental fatigue.
- Good talks and activities with my husband, kids, and friends keep my mental health in balance and enriched.
What are your favorite books, podcasts, or resources that inspire you to be a mental health champion?
Aside from my own books, there are so many others that have inspired me to speak out on mental health. Here are a few in no particular order. Every one of psychologist and mental health advocate Kay Jamison’s books. Her writing is stunning and her prose sparkles. Outrageous Acts and Everyday Rebellions and My Life on the Road by Gloria Steinem. Life Interrupted by Spalding Gray. Darkness Visible: A Memoir of Madness by William Styron. The Noonday Demon by Andrew Solomon. Long Walk Out of the Woods: A Physician’s Story of Addiction, Depression, Hope, and Recovery by Adam Hill. The Center Cannot Hold: My Journey Through Madness by Elyn Saks.
If you could tell other people one thing about why they should consider making a positive impact on our environment or society, like you, what would you tell them?
Go for it. I frequently quote John Donne in my lectures and writings “No man is an island . . .” Our interactions with each other are not only central to our well-being but essential for our society.
How can our readers follow you online?
My website is: www.michaelfmyers.com with access to my LinkedIn, Twitter and Doximity pages.
This was very meaningful, thank you so much. We wish you only continued success on your great work!
Thank you very much for this opportunity. I’m deeply honored and grateful.