This week’s issue of Newsweek magazine features an essay by this same title by David Noonan, highlighting the problem of suicide among doctors. Believe it or not, doctors have the highest suicide rate of any profession. “Struggling in Silence,” a documentary film which will appear on public television stations, examines this problem.
The underlying cause of suicide is depression. For decades we have recognized that depression is not simply sadness caused by the bad occurrences in life. It’s related to a chemical imbalance in the brain, and is treatable with medication.
According to Noonan’s essay, the rate of depression among doctors is the same as in the general population, but it remains undiagnosed and untreated in more doctors. You’d think that doctors would recognize the signs of depression within themselves and seek treatment, but it seems to be that being a doctor prevents seeking help. You see, there is pressure among physicians to be strong, and although patients can accept a doctor with some physical ailments (like diabetes or high blood pressure), the public is less likely to accept a doctor with depression.
The pressure to avoid medical care for depression is tremendous among doctors. Every year, when I receive my licensing renewal applications, there is a question on there that asks whether or not the doctor has had any mental health issues. Of course, licensing boards have a responsibility to protect the public from a physician whose mental condition may harm the public, but depression is generally not one of those kinds of problems. But just seeing the question on the renewal application can be enough to nudge a doctor away from seeking care.
The suicide rate is higher among doctors in part because they have a higher success rate when they attempt suicide. They know what they’re doing. They know the human body, and what it takes to stop a pulse. They have access to lethal drugs. They know how to use them.
The suicide rate among women doctors is even higher than for men. A female physicians is more than twice as likely to commit suicide as a non-physician.
Depression often strikes young adults, and medical schools are currently developing programs to help these young doctors-in-training to seek help for depression that may be starting to afflict them.
Depression, of course can strike anyone, and anti-depressants are the most subscribed group of medications in the