Physician Suicide: Lessons Learned From Those Left Behind

March 23, 2017

Having spent my career studying the tragedy and enigma of suicide among doctors, I have discovered the published literature is short on information gleaned from those who know physicians best—their family members, medical colleagues, intimate friends, teachers, and students, as well as those who have lost their physicians to suicide. I have long believed that these are exactly the people who hold information that is key to our quest to make sense of why some doctors make such a desperate decision about their life.

For more than 2 years I have been talking with those who are willing to share their story and understanding of the physician loved one, colleague/friend, or treating doctor whom they’ve lost. In my recently published book, Why Physicians Die by Suicide: Lessons Learned from Their Families and Others Who Cared, you can hear their voices and what I have learned from them. I also share lessons from another, equally significant population—physicians (including some of my own patients) who have attempted suicide and did not die. They are able to provide unique and invaluable information about the ideas and emotions that led to their decision to kill themselves as well as the ways in which their near-death experience and second chance at living have fundamentally changed them.

Physician suicide book coverAlthough suicide has been with us since the beginning of time, it remains a very taboo subject in our society. Many people do not want to know about it and when they do they want to push it away. I am only too aware of this. I sense it when I face the resistance to my research or the derision I get from a few of my colleagues about “being obsessed with suicide”. We write about very different subjects but I feel great kinship with the late Elie Wiesel. In accepting the Nobel Peace Prize in 1986, he said, “…I have tried to keep memory alive…I have tried to fight those who would forget. Because, if we forget, we are guilty, we are accomplices.”

As painful as suicide is, we must remember our brothers and sisters in medicine who could not go on, whose lives were so tragically interrupted. Many of the people with whom I spoke in preparation for writing the book have told me that they were sharing their stories because they didn’t want their loved one to have died in vain, and they hoped what they had to say would in some way contribute to saving the life of another despairing physician. In the words of Dr. Edwin Shneidman who was a Professor of Psychology at UCLA, esteemed researcher, prolific author and giant in the study of suicide: “Postvention is prevention for the next generation.”

Editor’s note: This post is an adaptation of an excerpt from the introduction in "Why Physicians Die by Suicide: Lessons Learned from Their Families and Others Who Cared."

Dr. Myers is Professor of Clinical Psychiatry and immediate past Vice-Chair of Education and Director of Training in the Department of Psychiatry & Behavioral Sciences at SUNY-Downstate Medical Center in Brooklyn, NY. He is the author of 8 books, the most recent of which are "Why Physicians Die by Suicide: Lessons Learned from Their Families and Others Who Cared" and “The Physician as Patient: A Clinical Handbook for Mental Health Professionals” (with Glen Gabbard, MD). He is a specialist in physician health and has written extensively on that subject. Currently, Dr. Myers serves on the Advisory Board to the Committee for Physician Health of the Medical Society of the State of New York. He is a recent past president (and emeritus board member) of the New York City Chapter of the American Foundation for Suicide Prevention.  

The views expressed on this blog are solely those of the blog post author and do not necessarily reflect the views of Psych Congress Network or other Psych Congress Network authors. Blog entries are not medical advice.

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