September 17 marks National Physician Suicide Awareness Day. My sincere condolences go out to all who have lost friends or colleagues to suicide. My thoughts are with all of those who have suffered so deeply, and I wish comfort to anyone who is grieving these incredible physicians and loved ones.
Even before COVID-19, more than half of primary care physicians reported burnout, and physicians were committing suicide at twice the rate of non-physicians.
While there are not clear statistics for this year yet, it is evident that there are even more significant strains on healthcare workers related to the pandemic and staff shortages now that threaten to further erode mental health and increase psychiatric crisis among physicians and healthcare workers.
This is a particularly vulnerable time, because we know suicide rates increase in the 12-24 month period after a disaster. While we are still living through this disaster, we are now far enough along from the initial impact that we are in the disillusionment phase described by Zunin & Myers, cited in the DHHS “Training Manual for Mental Health and Human Service Workers in Major Disasters.” This is the time when “optimism may turn to discouragement” and stress takes a significant toll on mental health. Currently this is being exacerbated further by staff shortages, aggressive patients, and another surge in cases with the delta variant. There also has not been enough done in recent years to support physicians in crisis: there remains stigma around seeking help, fear of repercussions on careers, and not much support from healthcare systems when a physician does ask for help.
We at the WAFP, alongside the AAFP, are very concerned about this pattern and are working to address wellbeing at the systems level. However, we are dealing with significant downstream effects still, so please join us in proactively checking in on each other personally, particularly during this extended crisis period, and encourage each other to seek much needed help.
If you or someone you know is considering suicide, call Doctor Lifeline (1-888-409-0141), the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline (1-800-273-8255), go to https://suicidepreventionlifeline.org, or text HOME to 741741. Also, a reminder for those with 262, 414, 608, and 920 area codes, 10-digit dialing for phone calls begins October 24; this change is being made to help establish 988 as the national crisis hotline number, slated to start next year.
If you would like to help discuss ways to make improvements at the systems level, please join our Wellbeing Workgroup. Contact Brandon for more information.
Thank you for all that you do. But please keep your health as a priority. Let us know if there is anything that we can help you with.
Elizabeth Pyne, MD