Suicide is a tragedy whenever it happens and to whomever it happens. It is an incredibly sad way to end a life and often leaves a wake of devastation and unanswered questions.
In the past few months, a lot of attention has been drawn to the suicide of young doctors. It's being called an epidemic and a shameful secret. Recently, young physician Dr Chloe Abbott died by suicide off the back of enormous pressure. Dr Abbott's family have spoken publicly about the immense pressures faced by Chloe to try and raise awareness of the dirty secret of our allegedly caring profession.
I have had the incredibly sad task of attending the funerals of several colleagues who have died by suicide.
The fact is Chloe is not alone.
I have had the incredibly sad task of attending the funerals of several colleagues who have died by suicide -- many more than my friends in other professions. In fact, according to BeyondBlue, doctors have a staggeringly high rate of depression and suicidal ideation, far in excess of the general population and above that of other professions.
What truly makes this a dirty secret, though, is that for years medics have suffered in silence, ignored the problem in themselves and others and perpetuated a system that places us at risk.
It may seem as though mental illness and suicide is to be expected in a profession that is subject to perfectionism, long work hours, and a tremendous amount of responsibility. Few Twenty-somethings have the burdens of life and death, professional achievement and daily scrutiny that happens as a matter of course in medicine. Couple this with an increasingly bleak employment future at the end of years of back-breaking, expensive study and social isolation of long hours or placement away from family and friends, and you've got a perfect storm.
"So what?" you might say. "Lots of people work hard, lots of people relocate and lots of people have responsibility."
That is true. Let's be honest here, nobody really wants to win the who-works-hardest competition. Aside from the tragic loss of bright, young lives, the reason we should all care about suicide in doctors is simple: If a profession who cares for others can't care for itself, what hope does everyone else have?
Medicine is a profession steeped in tradition for good and for bad. Current methods of medical education date back to 1904 from an American physician named William Halstead. In the ensuing 113 years, so much has changed, yet we have stagnated in a method of teaching and working that serves nobody, especially the patient.
Why we persist in flogging our young doctors is beyond me. Why it is still allowed is a question that I will never be able to work out, especially not in the face of such tragedy.
The general public will not know that mental illness is nothing to be ashamed of when those who take care of them are too embarrassed to seek help.
Doctors enjoy some of the best health of the population and exist to battle disease. Yet when it comes to depression and suicide, we as individuals, as a profession, and as a healthcare system are falling dangerously short.
Doctors hide their problems because our profession of 'carers' sees struggling as an enormous professional failure and fatal character flaw. Our hospital administrations are unable to provide the appropriate support because of a stretched, under-resourced system.
When doctors can't be open about their struggles, how on earth is the rest of the community supposed to feel about speaking up? How on earth can they be cared for when our carers are so sick? How will other professions know to look after their own?
The answer is they can't. The general public will not know that mental illness is nothing to be ashamed of when those who take care of them are too embarrassed to seek help. As a profession, doctors should care enough about each other to care for ourselves and to create a system that facilitates health rather than destroying it.
I can only urge hospitals, healthcare systems and my colleagues to lead by example. We give everything to our patients, so now let's give a little to ourselves. I would be so proud to work in a workplace that fosters good mental health and looks after one another so much that everyone else looks to us to see how it's done. And healthy doctors have the most important outcome of all and that is healthy patients.
We should care desperately about our own health so that, at the end of the day, we can make everyone's better.
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