Mental health

5 things to know about physician suicide on National Physician Suicide Awareness Day

On Sept. 17, physician groups are asking the profession to help break down stigma, raise awareness, reach out to struggling colleagues and recognize warning signs.

A few years ago, several physician groups came together to dedicate Sept. 17 as National Physician Suicide Awareness (NPSA) Day. The organizations, which include the Council of Residency Directors in Emergency Medicine, the American College of Osteopathic Emergency Physicians, and the American College of Emergency Physicians, are asking everyone in the medical profession to help break down stigma, raise awareness, reduce the fear of consequences of seeking help, reach out to struggling colleagues and recognize warning signs.

Below are 5 things to know about physician suicide, including where to seek help.

1. Physicians complete suicide at higher rates than the general population.

Although recent studies have not examined the physician suicide rate, one review found that male physicians are up to 40% more likely to complete suicide than other males, and the suicide rate of female physicians is up to 130% more than that of women in the general population.

In 2018, researchers found that roughly one U.S. physician completes suicide every day, and that physicians have the highest suicide rate of any profession. The researchers presented these findings at the American Psychiatric Association 2018 annual meeting.

2. To help struggling physicians, a DO created an anonymous physician hotline last year.

Physicians were already grappling with high burnout and suicide rates when COVID-19 hit the U.S. last year. Knowing that the stress of the pandemic would further strain many physicians’ mental health, Mona Masood, DO, created the Physician Support Line, (888) 409-0141, as an outlet for physicians struggling during COVID-19.

The Physician Support Line is a free, confidential resource where physicians can discuss stressors with volunteer physicians.

Another great option for physicians seeking support via phone is the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline, (800) 273-8255.

3. On NPSA Day, physicians and their supporters will raise awareness of physician suicide via the #Light4docs hashtag.

On Sept. 17, the American Medical Women’s Association hosts an annual social media #Light4docs campaign and encourages physicians, students and supporters worldwide to light candles that will help to raise awareness of physician suicide.

Now established, many in the community begin posting in the days leading up to NPSA Day.

4. Meant to support physicians’ mental health, the Lorna Breen Act may soon be up for a vote in the U.S. House of Representatives.

The Dr. Lorna Breen Health Care Provider Protection Act is a bipartisan bill developed to address the high rates of burnout among health care professionals and the high suicide rate among doctors. It passed the Senate in August and is expected to be up for a vote by the House of Representatives soon.

Advocacy by the AOA and the osteopathic medical profession helped ensure the act’s Senate passage; the Osteopathic Advocacy Network plans to launch a grassroots campaign supporting the bill soon.

If enacted, the Lorna Breen Act will call for funding to support mental health training for health care professionals and funding for mental health programs for health care professionals involved with COVID-19 response efforts. It will also call for the Department of Health and Human Services to study and publish policy recommendations on removing the barriers to mental health care that health care professionals face.

5. These are the suicide warning signs to watch for.

The CDC lists 12 common warning signs that may indicate that an individual is at heightened risk of suicide. They include:

  • Feeling like a burden
  • Being isolated
  • Increased anxiety
  • Feeling trapped or in unbearable pain
  • Increased substance use
  • Looking for a way to access lethal means
  • Increased anger or rage
  • Extreme mood swings
  • Expressing hopelessness
  • Sleeping too little or too much
  • Talking or posting about wanting to die
  • Making plans for suicide

Related reading:

Addressing patient suicide risk: Communication is key

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