Two more and counting: Suicide in medical trainees

depressed doctorIn the aftermath of two resident suicides in New York this month, Michael F. Myers, MD, professor of clinical psychiatry at State University of New York, Brooklyn, and the author of “Why Physicians Die by Suicide: Lessons Learned From Their Families and Others Who Cared,” writes of his recent experiences and provides some important recommendations to the medical community.

Like everyone in the arc of social media impact, I was shocked and terribly saddened by the recent suicides of two New York women in medicine – a final-year medical student on May 1 and a second-year resident on May 5. As a specialist in physician health, a former training director, a long-standing member of our institution’s medical student admissions committee, and the ombudsman for our medical students, I am finding these tragedies harder and harder to reconcile. Something isn’t working. But before I get to that, what follows is a bulleted list of some events of the past couple of weeks that may give a context for my statements and have informed my two recommendations.

  • May 3, 2018: I give an invited GI grand rounds on stress, burnout, depression, and suicide in physicians. The residents are quiet and say nothing. Faculty members seem only concerned about preventing and eradicating burnout – and not that interested in anything more severe.
  • May 5: A psychiatry resident from Melbourne arrives to spend 10 days with me to do an elective in physician health. As in the United States, there is a significant suicide death rate in medical students and residents Down Under. In the afternoon, I present a paper at the annual meeting of the American Academy of Psychodynamic Psychiatry and Psychoanalysis on the use of psychotherapy in treatment-resistant suicidal depression in physicians. There is increasing hope that this essential modality of care will return to the contemporary psychiatrist’s toolbox.
  • May 6: At the annual meeting of the American Psychiatric Association in New York, I’m the discussant for powerful heartfelt papers of five psychiatrists (mostly early career psychiatrists and one resident) that talked about living with a psychiatric illness. The audience is huge, and we hear narratives about internal stigma, self-disclosure, external stigma, shunning, bullying, acceptance, rejection, alienation, connection, and love by peers and family. The authenticity and valor of the speakers create an atmosphere of safety, which enables psychiatrists in attendance from all over the world to share their personal stories – some at the microphone, some privately.
  • May 7: Again at the APA, I chair and facilitate a workshop on physician suicide. We hear from four speakers, all women, who have lost a loved one to suicide – a husband, a father, a brother, a son – all doctors. Two of the speakers are psychiatrists. The stories are gripping, detailed, and tender. Yes, the atmosphere is very sad, but there is not a pall. We learn how these doctors lived, not just how they died. They all loved medicine; they were creative; they cared deeply; they suffered silently; and with shame, they lost hope. Again, a big audience of psychiatrists, many of whom share their own stories, that they, too, had lost a physician son, wife, or mother to suicide. Some of their deceased family members fell through the cracks and did not receive the life-saving care they deserved; some, fearing assaults to their medical license, hospital privileges, or insurance, refused to see anyone. They died untreated.
  • May 8: Still at the APA, a psychiatrist colleague and I collaborate on a clinical case conference. Each of us describes losing a physician patient to suicide. We walk the attendees through the clinical details of assessment, treatment, and the aftermath of their deaths. We talk openly and frankly about our feelings, grief, outreach to colleagues and the family, and our own personal journeys of learning, growth, and healing. The clinician audience members give constructive feedback, and some share their own stories of losing patients to suicide. Like the day before, some psychiatrists are grieving the loss of a physician son or sibling to suicide. As mental health professionals, they suffer from an additional layer of failure and guilt that a loved one died “under their watch.”
  • May 8: I rush across the Javits Center to catch the discussant for a concurrent symposium on physician burnout and depression. She foregoes any prepared remarks to share her previous 48 hours with the audience. She is the training director of the program that lost the second-year resident on May 5. She did not learn of the death until 24 hours later. We are all on the edge of our seats as we listen to this grieving, courageous woman, a seasoned psychiatrist and educator, who has been blindsided by this tragedy. She has not slept. She called all of her residents and broke the news personally as best she could. Aided by “After A Suicide: A Toolkit for Residency/Fellowship Programs” (American Foundation for Suicide Prevention), she and her colleagues instituted a plan of action and worked with administration and faculty. Her strength and commitment to the well-being of her trainees is palpable and magnanimous. When the session ends, many of us stand in line to give her a hug. It is a stark reminder of how many lives are affected when someone you know or care about takes his/her own life – and how, in the house of medicine, medical students and residents really are part of an institutional family.
  • May 10: I facilitate a meeting of our 12 second-year residents, many of whom knew of or had met the resident who died. Almost everyone speaks, shares their feelings, poses questions, and calls for answers and change. There is disbelief, sadness, confusion, some guilt, and lots of anger. Also a feeling of disillusionment or paradox about the field of psychiatry: “Of all branches of medicine, shouldn’t residents who are struggling with psychiatric issues feel safe, protected, cared for in psychiatry?” There is also a feeling of lip service being paid to personal treatment, as in quoted statements: “By all means, get treatment for your issues, but don’t let it encroach on your duty hours” or “It’s good you’re getting help, but do you still have to go weekly?”

In the immediate aftermath of suicide, feelings run high, as they should. But rather than wait it out – and fearing a return to “business as usual” – let me make only two suggestions:

1. We need to come together and talk about this – medical students and residents and training directors and deans. A town hall forum would be ideal. Although there are amazing innovations on wellness emanating from the Association of American Medical Colleges and Accreditation Council for Graduate Medical Education, many current medical students and residents feel frustrated – “This is taking too long” or “This is top down and being imposed on us” or “What about our voices … don’t they count?” Although students and residents have representatives on faculty committees, feedback is not universal, and not all residents believe that their senior peers truly convey their concerns to those in power. They want to be present at the table and speak for themselves. Too many do not feel they have a voice.

2. In psychiatry, we need to redouble our efforts in fighting the stigma attached to psychiatric illness in trainees. It is unconscionable that medical students and residents are dying of treatable disorders (I’ve never heard of a doctor dying of cancer who didn’t go to an oncologist at least once), yet too many are not availing themselves of services we provide – even when they’re free of charge or covered by insurance. And are we certain that, when they knock on our doors, we are providing them with state-of-the-art care? Is it possible that unrecognized internal stigma and shame deep within us might make us hesitant to help our trainees in their hour of need? Or cut corners? Or not get a second opinion? Very few psychiatrists on faculty of our medical schools divulge their personal experiences of depression, posttraumatic stress disorders, substance use disorders, and more (with the exception of being in therapy during residency, which is normative and isn’t stigmatized). Coming out is leveling, humane, and respectful – and it shrinks the power differential in the teaching dyad. It might even save a life.

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