Recently a national survey reported that surgeons have a remarkably high rate of suicidal thoughts; approximately one in every 16 reported contemplating suicide. This is nearly double the rate seen in the general population.
Of concern was that of these educated, socially connected and largely affluent professionals, only one in four sought out help from a professional.
Suicide is a disproportionate cause of death for physicians compared with other professions. Considering that surgeons are highly educated, have jobs, and are mostly married makes these facts very surprising. Being married, educated and employed are usually factors reducing suicidal risks.
The study observed that suicidal thoughts were correlated with having the perception of making a recent major error, being depressed, and feeling “burnt out”.
Sixty percent of those physicians admitting to suicidal thoughts said they were reluctant to seek out help because they worried about the impact on their careers. The fear of having their career damaged outweighed their desire to access the appropriate level of care.
As I reviewed this report I wondered if this phenomenon is not reflective of many professionals who carry responsibilities for the welfare of others. Airline pilots, other health care providers, and executives of large organizations, can all feel the guilt of a large mistake that causes others to suffer. Pressure to perform fast and with perfection and under the scrutiny of others can unquestionably lead to burn-out. All can fear stigma’s effect.
Unfortunately, these conditions are not likely to change. What can, should, and must change is the fear associated with seeking help.
It is unacceptable that for some it is easier to end your relationships, career, and life then it is to be seen leaving a psychologist’s or psychiatrist’s office. It should not be easier to harm yourself then it is to say I am hurting and need help…
My sincere hope is that we can educate our people of all ages that getting help when you need it is a demonstration of wisdom not weakness. That as co-workers and employers we celebrate the astuteness of a colleague whom, when in distress, seeks help.
If you know a person who is withdrawing from others, expressing despair, attending less to their personal care, appears to be using alcohol more, and is having difficulties in their work and relationships ask them how they are doing. Take a few minutes to really listen to them; even ask them if they need help. Support and reassure them that seeking help when you need it is an act of responsibility and courage. Help them get the care they need; you might be saving a life.
David S. Proffitt is president and CEO of The Acadia Hospital in Bangor. This column appears on the Acadia Touch Points blog.