Here’s a disturbing fact: Medical doctors have the highest suicide rate of any profession. It may be uncomfortable to read that in the USA nearly 400 doctors take their life every year. So how does a physician find assistance in a system that seems to be clearly failing its own? I sat down recently with Dr Charles, a fitness enthusiast, soccer fanatic and dad, to discuss his own struggle.
“I could no longer see my vision.” That’s how Dr Charles expresses his moment of realisation. Fresh out of his residency with a five-year marriage on the rocks, a newborn son he was about to be separated from and a career that seemed to have very little focus, he was burning through money trying to find happiness. “I had gained twenty pounds (9 kg) of fat, was probably prediabetic and was very angry with God,” he says. Suddenly faced with the uncertainty of life, this was a midlife crisis at 30 for a man who, from the outside, seemed to have it all.
Dr Charles is not alone. The trend for doctors who struggle with suicidal thoughts is global. Studies have revealed that about 13 per cent of male doctors have depression. The numbers are significantly higher for female doctors at nearly 20 per cent. In Australia in 2017, a number of junior physicians took their own lives within a matter of months, and the health services immediately took notice. A survey by Beyond Blue noted that young doctors experience levels of psychological distress that are significantly higher than in the general population, increasing the prevalence of suicide.
In an ultra-competitive industry, the 70 to 80-hour work weeks are a norm for many young physicians. “In my profession, there is a relentless pace that begins the moment you start medical school. There is no let down,” says Dr Charles. But while the long hours can lead to burnout, he refuses to list work stress as the main factor for his moment of crisis. Rather, he brushes it off as par for the course. “Every high achiever, or driven person, works very long hours. It may not be as highly stressful, but they possess the same work ethic. Doctors aren’t the only professionals who can claim that badge of honour.”
In discussing quite frankly how he chose to work through his battle with despair, Dr Charles wants to give hope to his colleagues. It’s the driving motive behind him telling his story.
Circle of Support
“Having someone to talk to is key to getting over the hump,” is his first point. Many doctors find it difficult to seek medical help for depression as they risk losing their medical licences, which deters them from speaking up. Indeed, Dr Charles (a pseudonym) has asked that his name, location and medical specialty not be revealed in this article.
But for people battling depression, isolation can be a silent killer. “Friendships provide the safe, nurturing space necessary for the roots of healing to take hold.”
Dr Charles stresses the importance of having interactions outside of the workplace and of staying connected to family and close friends. “These friends are my own personal mental health professionals. They help me find balance in the very focused chaos that I live daily.”
The road to recovery was long for Dr Charles, but he started by accepting the reality of things. “I needed to be in control of my time, and my life,” he says. What he decided would set him on a course of action that would revitalise his life and give him a renewed purpose. He made a conscientious determination to find joy in living.
“I began by removing the obstacles to what I envisioned would become my new normal. I had heard a lyric from a song that said, ‘concrete and cars are their own prison bars’, so I cut out the long drive to work by moving to within walking distance of the hospital.”
Dr Charles also limited his work days to 12-hour shifts—still long days, but at least the hospital was no longer his home as well as his office. His priority is spending time with his four-year-old son.
The change in Dr Charles’ work schedule meant he had time to care for his own wellbeing. So he joined a gym and committed himself to a strict diet and fitness regimen. “I love weight training and reading—things so crucial for me in maintaining good mental health. I work out daily while listening to audio books.” He was determined to correct the markers in his blood test that showed he was trending toward being a diabetic, so he now embraces a plant-based diet.
The Bigger Picture
Finding a healthy work/family balance is vital, but what about his spiritual life? “In embracing change, I found the one constant is that God never changes. We change—our jobs change, our lifestyle changes, our acquaintances change, our finances change, but while our experiences with God may change, God remains the same.”
He develops this thought further. “I found happiness and contentment in friendships and new experiences, and so my understanding of God was dramatically changing—the changes in my life were enlarging my territory.” He’s not talking about financial blessings or a growing real estate portfolio, he’s talking about spiritual growth; his deeper knowledge of God coming from his encounters with God.
A Burden Shared
Many of our physicians suffer in silence, and it’s important that stories of hope be shared to save even one doctor from suffering alone. Dr Charles encourages me to read the work of Oregon practitioner Dr Pamela Wible, who is fighting the cause for her colleagues who feel like suicide is the only option left to them. “She is a beacon of change; not just of hope, but real change.”
Asked if he has any advice for his fellow young medical professionals in similar distress, he responded: “Ask for help, exercise, broaden your life experiences and realise that changes are part of life.”
Nigel Byng is a freelance writer based in West Palm Beach, Florida. A version of this article first appeared on the Signs of the Times Australia website and is republished with permission.