Photo of Dr Michael Myers for article by Dr Michael Myers on physician suicide awareness day

National Physician Suicide Awareness Day: We Refuse to Forget

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September 17, 2019 was the second annual National Physician Suicide Awareness Day. As I wrote here last year, it is a day to commemorate colleagues lost to suicide and to raise awareness about the issue internally and externally by shedding a light on it.

Created by the Council of Emergency Medicine Residency Directors (and many of its affiliated groups), the goal is to lessen the stigma and encourage physicians and all other clinicians to speak about their struggles either privately or openly—and seek help. The group’s founder and director, Loice Swisher, MD, FAAEM—in partnership with the American Association of Suicidology—produced a daylong series of interviews and podcasts with experts in physician health and suicide. That program, their archived series from a year ago, and many other print and media resources are online here.

Over the past year, many other groups and individuals have worked hard to keep this important subject on everyone’s radar. I want to mention three of these. On September 17, Steve Moffic, MD wrote an impassioned piece “Being Our Colleagues’ Keepers: Preventing Our Suicides” on this site. He lists several instructions and strategies for individuals and administrators that could prove useful in preventing some suicides in health professionals.

The American Hospital Association (AHA) in partnership with the Education Development Center (EDC) and its Suicide Prevention Resource Center produced a state-of-the-art podcast called “Be Well: Preventing Physician Suicide” which was released and posted the week before National Physician Suicide Awareness Day. The comoderators of this program are Dr. Jay Bhatt, DO, MPH, MPA, Senior Vice President and Chief Medical Officer, AHA and Jerry Reed, PhD, Senior Vice President for Practice Leadership, EDC. First up was Michael Weinstein, MD, MBE, MPH, Associate Professor of Surgery, Sidney Kimmel Medical College, Thomas Jefferson University, Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. With heartfelt eloquence and commitment, Dr. Weinstein shared his personal story of severe burnout and suicidal depression. This was an expanded and updated account from his powerful 2018 article “Out of the Straitjacket.”

Next up was myself. I discussed what we know (and don’t know) about the epidemiology of suicide in physicians, direct and indirect drivers of suicidal acts, risk factors, diagnostic and treatment challenges, and the ways in which postvention research helps us with prevention. The final speaker was Heather Farley, MD, MHCDS, FACEP, Chief Wellness Officer, Christiana Care Health System, Delaware. Dr. Farley gave a comprehensive account of the systemic factors that contribute to burnout and behavioral problems in physicians and discussed the many ways that hospitals and their key officers can create a culture of wellness and diminish morbidity and attrition in their physician workforce. This podcast is full of sage advice for physicians and everyone who cares about them.

Finally, I was grateful to be invited to speak at the Third Annual Ben Shaffer Memorial Golf Classic at the Lakewood Country Club, in Rockville, Maryland on the eve of National Physician Suicide Awareness Day. This event honors and celebrates the legacy of Ben Shaffer, MD, a beloved orthopedic surgeon and sports medicine specialist who died by suicide May 20, 2015. After my short tribute to this great man, I appreciated the opportunity to chat informally with many of his work colleagues. They shared touching anecdotes and memories with me. He is achingly missed by all of them—and his patients. Since Dr. Shaffer’s death, I’ve come to know his mother and sister, Susan Solovay, both of whom are assisting in efforts to make sure that we don’t forget and that we learn from suicide deaths. I have noted Susan’s contributions in an earlier blog piece and in an interview that I did with her in 2017.1

I thank Thomas J. Nasca, MD, MACP, President and Chief Executive Officer, Accreditation Council for Graduate Medical Education, for a fitting closure to this blog piece: “Our goal, not to lose one.”

Reference

Myers MF. Why Physicians Die by Suicide: Lessons Learned from Their Families and Others Who Cared. Michael F. Myers, MD; 2017. Page 19.

Dr. Myers is Professor of Clinical Psychiatry and immediate past Vice-Chair of Education and Director of Training in the Department of Psychiatry & Behavioral Sciences at SUNY-Downstate Medical Center in Brooklyn, NY. He is the author of 8 books, the most recent of which are “Why Physicians Die by Suicide: Lessons Learned from Their Families and Others Who Cared” and “The Physician as Patient: A Clinical Handbook for Mental Health Professionals” (with Glen Gabbard, MD). He is a specialist in physician health and has written extensively on that subject. Currently, Dr. Myers serves on the Advisory Board to the Committee for Physician Health of the Medical Society of the State of New York. He is a recent past president (and emeritus board member) of the New York City Chapter of the American Foundation for Suicide Prevention.

The views expressed on this blog are solely those of the blog post author and do not necessarily reflect the views of the Psychiatry & Behavioral Health Learning Network or other Network authors. Blog entries are not medical advice.

This blog was first published on Psych Congress on 16 October 2019

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Michael was born in Canada and grew up always wanting to be a doctor. Only a few months into medical school, in the fall of 1962, his life was jarred by the suicide death of one of his 3 medical student room-mates. Bill's tragic death not only propelled him into psychiatry but also into becoming a specialist in physician health and a "doctors' doctor." He treated his first physician-patient on Christmas day 1970 and since then has cared for close to 1000 medical students and physicians. Now retired from private practice, he continues to teach medical students and residents about the many psychological and sociocultural aspects of medicine at SUNY Downstate Medical Center in Brooklyn, New York. Writing is his passion - some would say "addiction." Most of his books and scholarly works are for and about physicians and their families. He is very committed to recapturing and embracing the humanism of medicine. He can be reached via his website: www.michaelfmyers.com.

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