Dr. KaNisha L. Hall

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The Rise in Suicide Rates of Physicians

Updated: Aug 13, 2019

According to the first Medscape National Report on Physician Burnout and Depression, nearly two-thirds of the American physicians feel burned out, depressed, or both. Furthermore, the report showed that depression affects patient care: one in three physicians admits that their feelings of depression have an effect on how they relate to their patients and colleagues. A survey also shows that among 44 percent of US doctors who report feeling burned out, 60 percent indicates bureaucratic demands as the main cause of this stress.

Results further suggest that over a million of Americans will lose their physician in the following year to suicide – a doctor commits suicide in the United States every day, which is the highest rate of suicide of any professional. In addition, the rate of physician suicides – 28 to 40 per 100,000 – is more than twice that of the general population. Doctors who commit suicide often have undertreated or untreated mood disorders, alcoholism, and substance abuse.

Moreover, physicians have knowledge and access to potentially deadly substances, which may contribute to the higher rate of suicides in these professionals. Additionally, the findings show that of all medical specialties, suicide rates are the highest among psychiatrists.

Furthermore, studies from other countries suggest that mood disorders affect physicians worldwide – medical students and health care professionals from Europe, Australia, and Asia also report an increase in anxiety, depression, and suicidal ideation.

Causes of Burnout and Depression

For the majority of physicians, main factors that contribute to burnout and depression include paperwork and other bureaucratic demands (56%) and long working hours (39%). The survey found that half of MD’s working more than 50 hours a week report burnout.

In addition, about one-third of physicians pointed to compensation and a lack of work/life balance as significant contributors to burnout and depression.

Also, another burnout risk factor is the feeling that mistakes at work are highly risky – any mistake can have long-lasting or even fatal consequences. This means that the fear of making a mistake causes a pressure that can trigger anxiety, burnout or depression.

Finally, emotionally draining situations that they regularly encounter also put physicians at an increased risk of burnout.

Nevertheless, most doctors are reluctant to seek help for either burnout or depression. Many of them fear that they will be judged by their colleagues. Another reason for not getting help may lie in the stigma and stereotypes related to the role of the physician as people usually expect health care professionals to be strong and have all the answers.

According to the Medscape survey, 15 percent of physicians said they were depressed and had suicidal thoughts. Yet, only 43 percent of the respondents said they shared their thoughts of suicide with someone. Moreover, only one-third of health care professionals reached for psychotherapy.

Burnout and Depression Coping Strategies

Various studies show that occupations such as a health care professional, military personnel, a police officer, a firefighter, a social worker, a mental health counselor, an IT manager, a senior corporate officer, and a few others belong to a group of high-stress careers. For many of these professionals, stress is an inevitable part of their working day. Therefore, it is important to bring awareness to the importance of healthy coping strategies and encourage physicians and other professionals to seek help when feeling burned out or depressed.

Whether you are a physician or other professional combating work pressure, there are many strategies that can help you build resilience and manage stress more easily, such as the following.

1. Find a Supportive network

Reposts show that about half of all health care professionals choose healthy coping strategies such as exercise or talking to family members or friends about their feelings. Social support can help ease stress. Surrounding yourself with positive people, joining a support group or talking to a therapist can be really helpful for stress management.

2. Avoid Perfectionism

Set realistic expectations and accept that mistakes will be made – physicians are human beings too, and it is simply unreasonable to expect a doctor never to make a mistake. Work on strategies for managing perfectionism and learn to move on after you make a mistake. Continue to do your best and focus on new priorities.

3. Practice Self-care

While taking care of your patients, you may struggle to find time to take care of your basic needs. Things such as getting enough sleep, taking enough healthy food, exercising, and meeting other self-care needs are very important in managing work-related stress.

4. Practice Mindfulness Meditation

Studies show that practicing mindfulness or any other form of meditation is very helpful stress management strategy. Meditation helps to focus on the present and become aware of current activities, without interpreting, judging or over-reacting to it. Mindfulness can improve your mood and increase optimism. Also, mindfulness practice can boost your confidence and improve your relationships with other people.

5. Manage Your Time

Start scheduling time the activities that you enjoy and make it a habit. Make time for yourself and your hobbies, your family and friends, and the activities that will help you disconnect mentally from your work. Setting some time aside for pleasurable activities will ensure a work/life balance and help ease the stress.

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