A year and a half ago, Kip Wenger, DO, systems medical director of Team Health in Knoxville, Tennessee, found himself tending to a colleague in the ER who died of her self-inflicted wounds.
Hit hard, the emergency room physician for 31 years describes the suicide as a “wake up call.” Sadly, it was not even the first time he’d lost a colleague to suicide.
“I can count on more than one hand colleagues of mine who have taken their own life,” he said. The physician’s death further girded his belief that medicine is overdue for a culture shift that encourages physicians to talk about their mental health and burnout. “Doctors are bad at being vulnerable,” he says.
Lauren Appio, Ph.D, a New York-based psychologist specializing in personal and professional caregivers, agrees that high achieving people, such as physicians, often avoid being open about mental health issues due to fear. Whether fear of job loss or simply that the job has become a core part of a physician’s identity, “there’s a lot of fear that leads people to avoid addressing these issues until it becomes glaring,” she says.
Wenger feels that “[Healthcare systems] need to make it OK to stand up and say ‘hey look, I’m having a problem,’ and not fear that you’re going to lose your job.” In addition, he feels that hospitals and medical systems need to make physicians and other providers aware of their vulnerability to depression.
In lieu of waiting for a medical system shift, Appio recommends some strategies physicians can employ at any time: