Guest Editorial

Physician's Suicide Prompts Introspection, Outreach

February 02, 2015 04:05 pm Jay Lee, M.D., M.P.H.

As a father of a 2-year-old, I'm often amused watching my son play with other children his age. Playing in parallel, they are aware of each other, having fun in close proximity to each other but without actually sharing toys or even interacting.

[Jay Lee, M.D., M.P.H.]

Jay Lee, M.D., M.P.H.

In some ways, physicians are like toddlers in a sandbox. We communicate about patients and other necessary details of our jobs, but how often do we actually connect with our colleagues beyond a brief greeting in a hallway or acknowledging someone's birthday on Facebook?

I recently received an email from a med school classmate, whom I had not heard from in more than a year, asking me to call her. Although I'm usually happy to hear from old friends, the urgent tone of her message suggested that the news she wanted to share wasn't good.

I was right. One of our classmates had taken his own life.

I'm not naïve. About half of U.S. family physicians suffer from symptoms of burnout,( and physicians have a higher suicide rate than the general population. In fact, our country loses the equivalent of one medical school class to suicide each year.(

But it's one thing to be aware of a problem and another to experience it. Despite the staggering statistics related to physician burnout and suicide, I was shocked to learn that this intelligent, caring young man with a wife and a child had chosen this path.

It also made me realize that although I had spent four years with my friend in med school and had kept in touch through social media since then, I had no clue what was lurking in his darkness.

And it made me question what was lurking in my own.

I took a personal timeout and assessed where I am in my life and career. The good news is, I'm quite blessed. I have an amazing wife -- who also is a physician -- and we have three beautiful kids. I have a good job where I get to see patients, teach residents, and help lead our group. And later this year I will be sworn in as president of my state chapter.

Piece by piece, life is pretty good. But taken as a whole, it can be overwhelming at times. Should I strive for life-work balance or merely survive each day's frantic schedule? I do my best to be mindful of and intentional with all my responsibilities, and I try to contribute meaningfully in all of these areas.

Could I do more? When my friend called with the bad news, she made me promise to call at least five of our classmates to let them know what happened. How old school, I thought, to have actual conversations with people (even if it was via smartphone). Taking it beyond the brevity of Twitter, we were able to engage in real talk. It was therapeutic.

I asked myself, if I ever found myself in such a dark place, who are the people I could trust? Who would I reach out to for help?

And that made me wonder, who would my friends and colleagues reach out to if they were struggling. Would it be me?

We need to be more aware of what our colleagues are going through. If we notice a change in mood, we need to ask about it. If we know others are dealing with a high level of stress from things like a family illness, divorce, moving or studying for their boards, we should reach out and ask how they are doing. That simple question could start a conversation that makes a difference for that person.

I feel fortunate to work in a place where we are encouraged to talk about things. I know not all of us have that luxury. One of my interns came to me after hearing my friend had died and asked if he could give me a hug. It was a simple, but wonderful, gesture.

I didn't know what my old friend was going through before he died. Perhaps no one did except him. And so we found ourselves at his memorial. As I sat there, I wondered if any of the speakers would have the courage to address the issue of suicide. Fortunately, one of them, a physician, did, and he reminded us that we have a responsibility to care for each other as we do our patients.

I think that is going to be an important part of my career going forward, caring for my patients and my colleagues/work family. Perhaps if we all support each other a little bit more, we might experience less burnout and fewer phone calls with tragic news.

Jay W. Lee, M.D., M.P.H., is associate medical director of practice transformation at MemorialCare Medical Group and director of health policy at the Long Beach Memorial Family Medicine Residency Program. He also is president-elect of the California Academy of Family Physicians.