Preventing physician suicide: Learn, share, prepare and be there for those in need

Physicians Foundation president offers resources, evidence-based actions for leaders.

During the COVID-19 pandemic, The Physicians Foundation “2021 Survey of America’s Physicians” found that more than six in 10 physicians reported they experienced feelings of burnout. These feelings of burnout are not going away on their own and can easily lead to isolation for physicians who are experiencing it and do not want to speak up for fear of repercussions.

When left untreated, burnout can cause more cases of depression, anxiety, post-traumatic stress disorder and substance use, and lead to suicidal thoughts for physicians, directly impacting physician suicide rates. Physicians have one of the highest suicide rates of any profession and over half of all physicians know of a physician who has considered, attempted, or died by suicide. In fact, it’s estimated that 1 million Americans lose their physician to suicide each year.

But we can all help prevent physician suicide. National Physician Suicide Awareness Day on Sept. 17 is a reminder and call to action to make time to talk – and to act – so physicians’ struggles do not become mental health emergencies. We can all help prevent physician suicide by learning the signs, sharing prevention resources, preparing before a moment of crisis, checking in on one another, and understanding and removing the structural barriers that prevent physicians from seeking the mental health care they deserve. Visit Vital Signs: The Campaign to Prevent Physician Suicide at www.NPSADay.org to explore resources to help take these six actions and break down the culture of silence around physician mental health.

Physician burnout is a complex challenge – one that requires a paradigm shift from a system where physicians think that burnout, mental health conditions or suicidal thoughts are something they must overcome by themselves, to one where they see the support system around them. The ALL IN: WellBeing First for Healthcare campaign offers five evidence-based actions medical leaders and health care executives should take.

  • Adjust expectations: Give physicians more flexibility and autonomy.
  • Get rid of stupid stuff: Partner with physicians to identify and remove low-value work through a rapid improvement process.
  • Get radical to shore up staffing: Create new types of shifts, consider voluntary redeployments, or train and upskill other clinicians.
  • Designate a well-being executive: Appoint one person with operational authority to oversee and align all clinician well-being efforts.
  • Do more than employee assistance programs: Ensure adequate mental health care by providing quality mental health counseling, standing up a peer support program, and offering psychological first aid training for all people leaders.

If you or someone you know may be considering suicide, contact the 988 Suicide & Crisis Lifeline. Call or text 988 or chat 988lifeline.org. For TTY users: Use your preferred relay service or dial 711 then 988.

Gary Price, MD, MBA, is president of The Physicians Foundation.