During the rise of COVID-19 in the United States in April 2020, a shocking headline appeared in the fight against the coronavirus: “Top E.R. Doctor Who Treated Virus Patients Dies by Suicide.” The night Dr. Lorna M. Breen took her own life, the world lost an exceptional physician. As an aspiring healthcare professional, I would like to dive deep and explore why suicide isn’t an uncommon occurrence in the healthcare provider community. In light of National Suicide Prevention Awareness Month, everyone should be aware that the act of taking one’s own life does not discriminate against even the most intelligent and kindest of heroes. As we are striving to join the healthcare field, we must acknowledge our own mental health and wellbeing while taking care of those around us, because in medicine, all lives matter.
Becoming a healthcare professional means that we are prone to subjecting ourselves to depressive symptoms that can result in suicidal ideation. In fact, a research study conducted in 2015 estimated the prevalence of depression or depressive symptoms in resident physicians at 28.8%, with an increasing trend per calendar year. That means nearly 1 in 3 resident physicians have or had suffered from depressive symptoms. This not only negatively affects the quality of care that a healthcare professional gives, but also increases medical errors. According to a 2006 study, the association of perceived medical errors with feelings of distress in physicians is high. Another study found that depressed residents made 6.2 times more medication errors than their non-depressed peers. Some of the risk factors for depression include professional and personal stress in which physicians have to make life-or-death decisions and have long work hours that can place strain on personal relationships.
Depressive symptoms and burnout start early in the career, and without proper intervention, can easily create a snowball effect. We are aware that suicide is a serious topic that needs more in-depth discussion than simply acknowledging that the Suicide Prevention Hotline is 800-273-8255 in the back of our minds. Is there more that we can do about it?
Reduce the stigma against mental illness. Being a healthcare professional gives an ambiance of being a superhero, immune to all diseases and illnesses. However, in the end, healthcare professionals are also human. We are all human. We are susceptible to illnesses, and should not be ashamed for getting help. Don’t hesitate to reach out to a counselor to unwind. For many college students, there are free resources and counseling available, depending on each college or university.
Learn to identify depression and depressive symptoms. Depression can be difficult to identify, and can vary from person to person, but there are common symptoms that should not be ignored. According to HelpGuide.org, the common symptoms of depression include feelings of helplessness and hopelessness, loss of interest in daily activities, appetite or weight changes, sleep changes, feeling irritable, loss of energy, self loathing, reckless behavior, concentration problems, and unexplained aches and pains. For more information, visit https://www.helpguide.org/articles/depression/depression-symptoms-and-warning-signs.htm.
Promote cooperation, not competition. Increased competition can increase work-related stress. Medicine is all about teamwork, but it is also a field in which competition is encouraged among peers. Schooling that causes isolation and creates a lack of social support that may lead to depression or burnout is often ignored.
Exercise and incorporate healthy habits. Exercising is known to mitigate symptoms of burnout and depression. Invite a friend along as a workout partner (while social distancing and wearing masks) to encourage and motivate each other to create a healthier body and brain. Incorporate healthy habits and pick up a hobby to further relax and alleviate stress from professional environments.
Suicide among healthcare professionals is increasing and can begin as early as in university. Every time a life is mourned, such as Dr. Lorna M. Breen’s, it is a life lost and begs to question the environment and society that leads an individual to make the decision to end their own life. As pre-health students, not only is mental health important for our future patients, but is also important for us as healthcare providers. Problems in mental health can affect our cognitive abilities, leading to preventable mistakes. In medicine, all lives matter, and no one is an exception.