Physician Suicide Awareness Day: Are You or Your Colleagues at Risk?

It’s been a brutal year for healthcare workers; over 900 of them on the front lines have died of COVID-19 so far, according to an interactive database from The Guardian and Kaiser Health News, and the number keeps rising.

Going to work every day in the middle of a global pandemic can take a significant toll on your mental and emotional health. Whether you are worried about your own health, wrestling with feelings of hopelessness and depression, or are mourning the loss of your colleagues, patients, or loved ones, the pandemic has touched us all in one way or another.

We like to think of nurses and doctors as heroes, but they are not immune to the psychological effects of the pandemic. That’s why the industry created Physician Suicide Awareness Day. Healthcare workers and first responders can be just as susceptible to thoughts of suicide as the rest of us. Learn more about this important day, so you can take control of your mental health.

The Stress of COVID-19

According to the CDC, there has been a 35% increase in U.S. suicide rate from 1999 to 2018. Many industry experts believe the pandemic could lead to a wave of post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). According to studies of previous pandemics as well as those related to COVID-19, healthcare workers responding to the crisis face a greater risk of developing PTSD and related symptoms than the rest of the public.

According to the National Institute of Health:

“Healthcare Workers (HCWs) in emergency care settings are particularly at risk for PTSD because of the highly stressful work-related situations they are exposed to, that include: management of critical medical situations, caring for severely traumatized people, frequent witnessing of death and trauma, operating in crowded settings, interrupted circadian rhythms due to shift work.”

PTSD rates range from 10-20% among first responders and healthcare workers, with even higher rates among ICU nurses and doctors. Sadly, 21.7% of essential workers have seriously considered suicide in the past 30 days.

The relative risk of suicide for physicians vs. the general population is 2.27 times higher for women and 1.41 times higher for men. The same is true of residents and those still in training; 30% of them experience depression or depressive symptoms and suicide.

Saving Lives with Suicide Prevention

The National Center for Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder provides a range of tips for “Managing Healthcare Workers’ Stress Associated with the COVID-19 Virus Outbreak.”

Self-Care vs. Institutional Support

Mental health professionals and industry experts believe healthcare workers need to look after their own mental health while receiving additional support from their employers. Facilities and managers need to recognize that responding to the pandemic can lead to a range of conflicting personal and professional demands, such as:

  • Daily workload demands going against the latest COVID-19 preparation and treatment measures
  • The need to maintain high standards in the face of staff and PPE shortages while official recommendations and policies continue to change
  • Experiencing the possible separation from and concern about family members
  • Subsequent fears about infecting oneself, their patients, friends, and family members
  • Inner conflicts regarding competing needs and demands

In addition to advocating for self-care, managers should work with their employees to address these concerns while urging individuals to come forward with issues regarding their own mental health.

If someone is having trouble coping on the floor, they should have access to “safe spaces” where they can discuss these issues. This includes increasing access to onsite staff counselors and mental health providers.

Regular Mental Health Screenings

If you think you or one of your colleagues is immune to PTSD or thoughts of suicide, think again.

40.9% of U.S. adults report at least one adverse mental/behavioral health condition related to COVID-19 that could increase their chances of taking their own life. Around 8 out of 10 people considering suicide give some sign of their intentions. People who talk about suicide, threaten suicide, or call suicide crisis centers are 30 times more likely than average to kill themselves. 

That’s why it’s important to screen regularly for depression, trauma, and other mental health issues. Instead of assuming your colleagues are fine, watch out for signs that they may be suffering in silence. Facility managers should get in the habit of screening their employees at the start of every shift, so distressed workers don’t feel obligated to continue working.

Reducing Stigma

Unfortunately, many in the healthcare industry still see these issues as a social and professional stigma. Some providers may worry that coming forward with these issues will hurt their careers. They may feel as if their boss or manager will retaliate against them for showing signs of weakness. No one wants to be labeled “sensitive,” but ignoring these issues only makes the problem worse.

Studies have found that about 35% of physicians do not seek regular health care for themselves. In one study, almost 50% of female physicians did not seek treatment despite feeling that they met criteria for a mental disorder.

Mangers need to make it clear to their staff that talking openly about their anxiety, depression, or thoughts of suicide will not hurt their careers. We all need to work together to address these stigmas head on, so providers feel more comfortable coming forward with these concerns.

2020 is bound to have an outsized effect on the health and wellbeing of providers all over the globe. Visit the Council of Residency Directors in Emergency Medicine to change the narrative around mental health and suicide by talking openly about your struggles duringthe pandemic.  

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