EXPERT ANALYSIS AT THE NPA PSYCHOPHARMACOLOGY UPDATE
LAS VEGAS (FRONTLINE MEDICAL NEWS) – Michael F. Myers, MD , found a common thread in interviews with loved ones, friends, and colleagues of physicians who have taken their own lives: About 10%-15% of the decedents never sought help beforehand.
“They’ve gone from illness to death without any care,” Dr. Myers, a psychiatrist, said at the annual psychopharmacology update held by the Nevada Psychiatric Association.
“I was shocked about this finding because we tend to know about the ones who do knock on our door to receive some type of treatment and then die by suicide. But to know that there are significant numbers of doctors out there who have received no treatment at all is unprecedented. We tend to delay going to physicians for help when we notice things in ourselves. It has been especially devastating for families. They want something to change in the world of medicine that will make it easier for doctors to go for help.”
In a new book based on the interviews, “Why Physicians Die by Suicide: Lessons Learned From Their Families and Others Who Cared” (Amazon, 2017), Dr. Myers combined stories from his own clinical practice and qualitative interviews with about 75 men and women to explore reasons why physicians might choose to take their own lives. “Our nonpsychiatric medical colleagues are really anxious to have information from us, because we’re living in an age of burnout; roughly 50% of U.S. physicians suffer from burnout,” he said. In addition to perspectives from bereaved loved ones and former medical colleagues, the book includes insights from others who are affected when doctors die by suicide: their medical training directors, employers, medical students, treating psychiatrists, and patients.
According to the American Foundation for Suicide Prevention , 300-400 physicians take their own lives every year, the equivalent of two to three medical school classes. “That’s a doctor a day we lose to suicide,” said Dr. Myers, a professor of clinical psychiatry at State University of New York, Brooklyn, who specializes in physician health. Compared with the general population, the suicide rate ratio is 2.27 among female physicians and 1.41 among male physicians ( Am J Psychiatry. 2004;161:2295-2302 ), and an estimated 85%-90% of those who carry out a suicide have a psychiatric illness such as major depressive disorder, bipolar disorder, alcohol use and substance use disorder, and borderline personality disorder. Other triggers common to physicians, Dr. Myers said, include other kinds of personality disorders, burnout, untreated anxiety disorders, substance/medication-induced depressive disorder (especially in clinicians who have been self-medicating), and posttraumatic stress disorder.
Additional risk considerations to keep in mind for physician patients include a family history of mood disorders, a sense of professional isolation, coping with lawsuits and/or medical license investigations, previous history of a depressive episode, and a previous suicide attempt. “Sometimes, it’s hard to get this information from a new physician who’s sitting opposite you,” Dr. Myers noted. “We mustn’t forget that there’s a lot of shame, embarrassment, and guilt that’s attached to previous suicide attempts.”
Suicide risk also is elevated for physicians with treatment-refractory psychiatric illness. “It troubles me when a physician is being treated by a generalist, the patient is not doing well, and he or she is not being referred for a second opinion or has never been referred to a psychopharmacologist,” he said. “It’s important that be done, because you know how difficult many of your patients can be. It’s important to have the expertise of a psychopharmacologist. I believe that physician patients will welcome that [second opinion], even if they have to travel 200 miles for it.”
The list of risk considerations for suicidal physicians also includes undiagnosed and untreated bipolar I or II disorder, rapid cycling bipolar disorder, and mixed affective states. “These are important things that can make our patients ill very quickly,” he said. Impulsivity is another consideration, as are severe sleep deprivation, circadian rhythm disturbances, and acute suicidal affective disturbance, which has emerged as a condition to consider in future revisions of DSM-5. “What you see in this condition is an individual becoming suicidal within minutes or hours,” Dr. Myers explained. “It’s usually an agitated state with insomnia and overvalued ideas or delusions that they are completely untreatable and hopeless. Physicians are no different than anyone else in that kind of state.” He emphasized that the stigma attached to mental illness in physicians is pernicious, because untreated mental illness is a key driver of suicide. After one of Dr. Myers’s patients took his own life, his son told Dr. Myers, “My father just hated being a patient. He felt so ashamed. I tried hard, too, but my support wasn’t enough.”
Inadequate treatment can occur for physician patients because of transference and countertransference dynamics “that muddle the treatment dyad,” Dr. Myers added. “We must be mindful of the many issues that are going on when we treat our own.”
In his 2005 book “ Why People Die By Suicide ,” psychologist Thomas Joiner, PhD , described three key reasons why people choose to take their own lives. The first is “perceived burdensomeness,” or a sense that one is a burden on others. “When I see it in my physician patients, it’s when they have a sense of being a burden on their family and feel they are no longer serving a purpose,” Dr. Myers said. The second reason is “failed belongingness,” or a sense that one does not belong to a valued social group. “This resonates with me,” Dr. Myers said. “Sometimes in therapy sessions, my physician patients will say ‘Don’t call me Dr. Smith anymore; I’m Mr. Smith.’ They’ve removed themselves from the field because they don’t feel like they belong anymore. That’s the unworthiness that physicians can feel.”
The third reason is “learned fearlessness,” or the acquired capability to enact self-injury. Dr. Myers likened it to “the kind of exposure to pain and fear that people also might learn through such experiences as mountain climbing, performing surgery, fighting in wars, or being afflicted with anorexia.”
If you suspect that a physician patient is engaged in suicidal thinking and planning, Dr. Myers advises framing your mental health assessment in the context of trust and mutual respect. “Please don’t be seduced by somebody who’s squeaky clean in the area of suicidality,” he said. “That individual may just not be sharing with you yet. You’re going to have to be firm and parental at times. There’s a lot of terror and shame that can lurk behind those symptomatic behaviors. That’s where you’ll use your expertise. I have found that there are many physicians out there who welcome you to go in that ‘dark place’ with them. For them to be able to share those scary thoughts with someone can enhance the therapeutic alliance.” The inquiry should include questions about potential means and methods, including access to firearms, stockpiled and/or self-prescribed medications, and medications ordered online or stolen/diverted from the workplace. Timely and careful documentation are essential, he said.
The plan for treating suicidal physicians should include obtaining old records and speaking with former treating professionals. “If you get pushback from the patient, say, ‘This is about me wanting to be thorough in my assessment and treatment plan with you,’ ” Dr. Myers said. “There is no substitute for a detailed mental status evaluation, collateral information, clinical intuition, experience, and consultation.” Hospitalizing the physician patient should be judicious and in consultation with others. “If you’re not sure, get a second opinion, because it can be life-saving,” he said, “but if done inappropriately, you can turn them off psychiatry for the rest of their lives. Make sure you’re not just panicking and worrying about some sort of medical-legal risk.”
In cases of split treatment, ensure regular contact with the psychotherapist and document all communication and any changes in status, medication, or psychotherapy modality change.
Dr. Myers cited many ways that psychiatrists can educate their colleagues about burnout, depression, and the risk of suicide. These include offering to give grand rounds or a lecture on the topic, serving on your local CME planning committee, joining your institute’s physician wellness team, serving on your state’s physician health program, and offering to facilitate a group for physicians after a physician colleague has died by suicide. “Postvention is prevention for the next generation,” Dr. Myers said, quoting Edwin S. Shneidman, PhD, founder of the American Association of Suicidology . “By taking care of ourselves and accepting the painful reality of physician suicide, we reach out to those left behind and make a difference. You become a change agent – someone who is part of the movement to stop doctors from killing themselves.”
Dr. Myers disclosed that he has received funding from the Medical Education Speakers Network.