I recently stumbled upon an entry on another blogging site I follow, featuring a piece by Pamela Wible, MD. She’s a family physician who recently published Physician Suicide Letters — Answered. She also gave a moving TEDx Talk last year where she spoke about the four hundred physicians (and medical students) who commit suicide each year. She discussed some of the stressors physicians face, like losing income to hospital overhead or working incredibly long hours. Her unhappiness in the field motivated her to start what she calls an Ideal Medical Care practice.
After listening to this talk and looking into ordering her book, ironically, I felt kind of depressed. As a pre-med student, I was always so excited to become a doctor. I think I glorified this career choice for a long time, which isn’t necessarily a bad thing. As I’ve made my way through my first two years of medical school, I’ve experienced some of the heavy burdens that we can endure by choosing this career path. Long hours of studying, high-stakes exams and, ultimately, the responsibility of another human’s life.
These same stressors can be applied to many other rigorous fields. I’m sure law students spend countless hours reading up on cases. Engineers might make a decision that has a lasting impact on whether someone lives or dies in a car accident. So why does the medical field have such an epidemic of suicide on its hands?
One of the main differences I see between professional fields is the proximity medical providers have to death. I’ve become quite confused on how exactly we are supposed to grieve. Many medical students have heard that in the past you weren’t supposed to show emotion and to separate yourself from death when a patient passes. Obviously, the sentiment has changed and the values we instill in future physicians are different, but I don’t think our coping skills have drastically improved.
As early as the pre-medical years, students in this field encounter death. I worked in a cadaver lab in college where I was intimately exposed to death in a way I had never dealt with before. As first-year medical students, it becomes easy to forget our cadavers are human bodies, and in the clinical years, in the hospital, death is everywhere.
When will we stop to cope? Can we take a week off to grieve when we experience death? Will our superiors understand why we seem “off”? When you deal with death on a frequent basis, it’s easier to forget. We bury the emotions that we carry. However, keeping things in and not going through a proper grieving process can be detrimental to our health and well-being. It’s important for medical providers to understand the weight of death that we carry and its effect on our own mental health.
In my opinion, teaching proper grieving and allowing medical students time to cope would be a useful addition to the medical school curriculum. This might even lower the suicide rates in our field. The things that lead someone to commit suicide are ultimately multi-factorial, but I think this is one way we can try to improve these numbers.
sunrise and silence by x1klima