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The Blue & Gray Press | May 24, 2017

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Med School students experience higher suicide rates, but that won’t stop me

Med School students experience higher suicide rates, but that won’t stop me

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.

Comments

  1. You had me at, "suicide"

    I would call this a journal entry more-so than a report, and if that’s what this is than you did an excellent job. Suicide shouldn’t even cross your mind if you are dead-set on your goals (see what I did there?). In the event you are struggling to balance your life, that is where family and friends come into play. If you have no family or friends you can always develop your acquired skill of shutting out your emotions to focus on the task at hand. In many cases focusing on your work is therapeutic, but the issue is when what’s stressing you out is what you’re working on. Shutting off your emotions will only build up stress and push you towards that suicidal tendency. I am a firm believer that the doctors without the aforementioned tendency are the ones that deal with their problems head on and have a support system in place to prevent an emotional or physical breakdown. If you feel genuinely worried about the possibility of developing suicidal tendencies, inform your family and closest friends. In the event individuals are not able to seek shelter in family or friends, the problems will only get worse if left untreated. If you believe you are in the right attempting to fix a rough system, then you already have your goal; however, I wouldn’t want an emotionally unstable doctor working on me, either.

  2. Anon response to You had me at, "suicide"

    First, this is the viewpoints section, it’s supposed to be an opinion on an issue and the author here just explained why it’s an important issue to her, I wouldn’t describe it like a journal entry at all. Second, this is a serious epidemic and you shouldn’t make corny jokes about it. Third, your comment is ignoring the huge epidemic the author is speaking about and treating the subject as if it’s a personal issue. Where did the author even say she might be suffering from suicidal thoughts? Your comment is pretty condescending, you seem like you’re lecturing the author who probably did her research. Also, are you insinuating the author might not be “in the right” by shedding light on this issue? What could be wrong about raising awareness?

  3. Anahi Vidovich

    This is a viewpoints article, so yes, it is more of a journal entry or your “view” on a certain topic. See what I did there? The statistics in the entry are data that was found by other people regarding the topic. I wrote this article to bring attention to a subject that happens, but most medical schools or people don’t want to talk about it. Thank you for the explanation on how to prevent suicidal tendencies. However, I am not suicidal and nowhere in this article did I say that. I would agree the title is misleading, but I had nothing to do with that. The editors changed it without my knowing. I’m sure you would find my original title to be less misleading. In regards to your last point: I don’t think anyone would want an “unstable” doctor working on them, I agree. Which brings me back to my original point of writing this article. To bring attention to the issue of the stigma of mental illness, especially in the medical field.

  4. Response @Anon response to You had me at, "suicide"

    First. I called it a journal entry because there were references to “I”. In fact, half of the article started with an opinion and didn’t end with any productive or meaningful information. It can be as important as you want it to be, but if you’re not offering solutions than what’s the point of the document? If the main purpose is to express individual concern, than it is a journal entry. You can label is as an awareness campaign, but in reality it’s just a sympathy grab. Second. The joke is an icebreaker. This is a comment on a report that’s a comment on someone’s reports – not the medical journal. Third. You’re grossly misinterpreting the usage of, “you”. My response was to offer insight on the issue, whereas the primary simply expressed a feeling with no outcome. The event in which I was directly offering insight to a situation proposed by the author, “Shutting off your emotions will only build up stress and push you towards that suicidal tendency.” was because that process has been declared detrimental to an individuals mental health.

  5. @Anahi Vidovich

    I do see what you did there, and you should stick to becoming a surgeon. Thank you for clarifying – the structure of this document threw me off. It’s a shame that I comment to offer a form of insight and somebody blows me off completely, saying that my comment makes things personal and condescending – it looks more to me like they missed the point. I even stated that in the event this is meant to be a journal entry, you did an excellent job. In regards to the title; it makes sense, but what was your original title? It’s good to hear that you’re stable, but I’m intrigued by what you would do to do more for those suffering than write in a journal. For instance; as the author, what would you attribute the lack of positive supervision over medical students to?

  6. @Anahi Vidovich

    In regards to the last question, how would you recommend fixing the problem?

  7. Anonymous

    Current medical student here. While I cannot offer solutions to the problem, nor am I experiencing depression or any detrimental psychological effects, there is a lack of knowledge of the rigors of pursing medicine. So I figured I would speak “from the otherside.” Classmates and I regularly put in more than 2 full time job’s worth of work in just studying per week. There are no days off in medical school. You swim or you drown. The amount of material presented per week is more than enough for me to confidently say 99.9% of college students would fail out or quit. A very commonly used analogy is medschool is like drinking from a firehose while chasing the fire truck. It is difficult to explain just how difficult medical school is without experiencing it oneself. I suppose the closest an undergrad can to understand it is like finals week…except everyday and taking all 400-500 level science classes. Even students with master’s degrees and other advanced degrees struggle. I have classmates who regularly only get 4 hours of sleep every.single.day. Let that sink in. To add on to the rigor of the program, there is a tremendous pressure to succeed. You cant just “quit” because then you will be left with a mountain of debt. The median medical school debt is 200,000 @ ~6.5% interest. You have family and friends who have spoken you up to be the doctor of the family. You dont want your classmates to think you were too stupid. You want to pass your board exams. You are often hundreds of miles away from family and friends..all who dont understand what medschool is really like.. Etc. Currently, residents working 16 hours a day at a wage of 50-65k per year. A resident is what you are after 4 years of medical school and you begin your journey training as a specific type of physician (ex: peds, ortho, urologist, etc). Training for this is 3-7 years depending on your specialty. Current legislation is pushing for residents to work 30 straight hours.

    It is no surprise there is a significant level of depression/anxiety/suicide in this community. Most people dont know, so they dont care. If you are going into medicine for the money, you are making a big mistake. Prepare to work for it. If you spent the hours you spent studying on building a business or investing (etc), you’d be more successful, faster, without as much pressure, and without the mountain of debt. Doctors dont start making money until they have graduated their residency and already are in their low-mid 30’s. Then the major taxes hit their salaries while they also have interest on their debt.

  8. Anonymous

    I am also a current medical student, and I’m deeply troubled by what’s written here. So you really think that getting a few hours of clinical experience and having a degree in Biology is sufficient preparation for medical school, and that you have a good understanding of what you’re getting yourself into? The tone of this article suggests that you do not. The author of this piece is the archetype of the Type A, I’m going to save the world and no one can stop me pre-med, who has limited life experience and a very poor and misguided understanding of the real world. You “decided” to specialize in trauma surgery as a junior in college? You’ve always known you wanted to be doctor because you looked at anatomy books before you could write in complete sentences?

  9. Anonymous

    To the last Anonymous message, for a current med student you sure dedicate a lot of your time towards shutting down the dreams of good people. And what if she does want to save the world? What if she does want to help people? That attitude will make her ten times the doctor you’ll be with your dismissive attitude. I’m sure there are better things for you to be doing with your time.

  10. Anonymous

    ^agreed. You have no idea what kind of life experience the author may have faced. You don’t know her. You’re a bully and obviously part of the issue the author is talking about. The hierarchical mistreatment of those lower in rank than you is exactly what contributes to high suicide rates. You obviously lack compassion, that isn’t a great sign for someone who wants to be a doctor.

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