By ANAHI VIDOVICHAt the age of six, I started asking my mother and father to buy me anatomy picture books, which I would then lean over and devour in a matter of days. From middle school onward I knew I wanted to become a physician, and from high school onward I knew I wanted to become a surgeon.
As a junior in college I decided to specialize in trauma surgery. Now, as a senior biology major graduating in December and taking up a clinical experience opportunity overseas in February, I have started to think more in depth about medical school. I have done the coursework, the volunteer hours and the intense studying. I am excited about creating a career for myself that has taken years to plan out. However, in the midst of all this excitement and anticipation, I was recently confronted with fear and shock after learning about the drastic increase in suicides of medical students and physicians.
Recent reports show that there is an increasing amount of suicides recorded for individuals in the medical field, including: medical students, interns, residents and even attendings. Suicide is the second leading cause of death among medical students and there happen to be many common contributing factors to these deaths.
In the medical profession, each individual faces an average of $180,000 in debt, the responsibility of watching over dying patients day in and day out, an intense workload, elevated stress levels, access to lethal drugs, superior anatomy knowledge and a culture of stigma surrounding mental illness. Due to the stigma, students are often looked down upon for seeking counseling, so it is no wonder the suicide rates are so high.
A recent article written by medical student Nathaniel Morris and published in the Washington Post reads, “In surveys roughly 10 percent of medical students have reported having thoughts of killing themselves within the past year.” According to the American Foundation of Suicide Prevention, medical students are 15 to 30 percent more likely to commit suicide compared to the general population, and physicians are twice as likely to commit suicide than the general population.
The stigma surrounding mental illness in the medical field is deeply troubling. The underlying trend in reports show that there is “no support, but rather humiliation from senior clinicians” because you are supposed to masquerade as a strong, untroubled professional even in your darkest hours. The hierarchical system in the medical field is obvious, but not often talked about. In a recording from a TEDMED talk, a retired surgeon recalled how her anatomy professor stood before an auditorium filled with 125 eager, would-be healers and said, “If you decide to commit suicide do it right so you don’t become a burden to society.”
I am fully aware that being a physician requires you to be on top of your game. The huge responsibility of caring for people’s lives should come with years of practice, discipline and challenging moments to mold a confident, knowledgeable physician. In medical school, professors teach their students to put their own emotions aside, even as they attend to tragedy. In general, it is a profession that will shun you if you show weakness or suffering in any way.
I will admit that even as an undergraduate student in the sciences, I have learned to block out my emotions when talking about sensitive subjects so as not to become overwhelmed in situations, yet still feel compassion for others. However, the pressure on interns and medical students to conceal signs of sadness in a culture that condemns them for asking for help has enabled an epidemic of suicides nationwide.
The sad truth is that physicians are good at committing suicide. With 400 doctors committing suicide every year, according to the New York Times, suicide prevention and awareness programs desperately need to be more readily available to students, and the dialogue surrounding medical field suicides needs to be kept open.
I would undoubtedly argue that a physician who knows their own limits, asks for help and allows themselves to get invested in their patients, makes for a more well-rounded, compassionate physician and human being. I love medicine. I love the applicable knowledge, the growing technology that enables physicians to provide care in needing areas, and I love that I can dedicate my life to serving others and cheating death even for just a day. Medical students and physicians devote their lifetime learning to help others, so I think it is time the medical community learns to care for them too.