On March 22 Dr. Oz aired our segment “Doctors Who Snapped” about the doctor suicide crisis. He interviews Janae Sharp, a widow who lost her husband John to suicide as a medical student; Ashley Edwards, a reporter who covered the recent Mount Sinai suicide cluster; Robyn Symon, the filmmaker of Do No Harm documentary exposing the hidden doctor suicide epidemic; and me, Pamela Wible, MD, a physician suicide awareness advocate and author of Physician Suicide Letters—Answered.
Mehmet Oz: Three young doctors jump separately to their deaths in New York City. A prominent surgeon found dead in his apartment with a knife sticking out of his chest. A surgeon accused of sneaking up behind a nurse, choking her with an elastic cord. These are the most recent headlines and stories of a gripping health crisis that’s just beginning to unfold. To be honest I had a pretty hard time emotionally preparing for this because it hits so close to home. Today we’re investigating the hidden epidemic of doctors who snapped. Would you know if the person you trust most with your life is on the brink of taking their own? View Oz TV clip #1
Dr. Oz shared during the show that three of his close physician friends were lost to suicide. Portions of the Do No Harm film trailer were then viewed by the live studio audience and on air.
After Janae shared the tragic loss of her husband John, Dr. Oz asks me to share why so many doctors are killing themselves.
Mehmet Oz: So the big question no one has been able to answer is why? Why would a doctor who makes an oath to save others take his own life? So I want to bring in someone and through our conversation may be able to answer that question. Doctor Pamela Wible is the leading advocate of Physician Suicide Awareness and the author of Physician Suicide Letters please join us, Doctor Wible. You know first hand what John was going through, if I can share this because you’ve been open about the fact that you were also suicidal at one time. So what happened to you personally? View Oz TV clip #2
Pamela Wible: Well I was depressed and suicidal as a direct result of this profession. I was so unable to function I couldn’t get out of bed for six weeks and I felt like I was in some sort of like a coma. Then I just prayed every night that I could just peacefully die in my sleep (because I’m not a violent person) but I just didn’t want to live anymore and every morning I was horrified to open my eyes and see that I was still here. Like I said, this was 100% work related, my distress.
Mehmet Oz: Part of the reason you all should care about this a lot is because if we can’t take care of ourselves in the medical profession, we can’t take care of you. What kind of a doctor can take care of a patient if they’re suicidal or have lost interest in themselves? So when we come back, are the doctors who are contemplating themselves a hidden danger to others.
Then the set suddenly shifted from the white couch to a panel discussion (& these TV crews move quickly!).
Mehmet Oz: We’re back investigating the shocking and invisible epidemic affecting every one of us. Could your doctor snap and take their own life? I’m joined now by Ashley Edwards, Refinery29 reporter who recently uncovered a cluster of suicide deaths in one New York hospital. Doctor Pamela Wible, leading advocate for physician suicide awareness, and author of Physician Suicide Letters—Answered; and Robyn Symon, a documentarian who’s been investigating this. Her latest project is Do No Harm that’s the clip that you just saw. So Ashley let me start with you, you became aware of this after a close friend committed suicide. You began to research this as a reporter. You realized it was much more widespread than any of us appreciated.
Ashley Edwards: Absolutely. So my friend Deelshad she actually died by suicide at her hospital. Just doing a quick Google search, I found that two years prior or the year before a resident committed suicide at the same hospital. The very same building and that same year also a medical student jumped from that same building. So that’s three women in the space of two years.
Mehmet Oz: To the point that I think is being made by all of us, if patients did that we would be beside ourselves. How widespread Pamela is this? You actually have numbers, you looked at 757 reports, is that true?
Pamela Wible: That’s true and there is more and more that come in every day. I have close to 800 now on my list.
Mehmet Oz: Suicides?
Pamela Wible: These are families that contact me telling me their husband died by suicide. I mean I’m in touch with so many widows of physicians who have died by suicide, I’m now leading retreats with widows because there’s just so many families left behind just trying to put the pieces back to their life. It’s a huge crisis.
Mehmet Oz: You have a couple of letters, if you don’t mind, just to hear. This is directly from, these are suicide notes.
Pamela Wible: These are suicide notes and sometimes suicide notes that are left behind are just kind of quick apologies, but these are actual letters that were sent to me by physicians who were deciding whether to live or die. They were debating the pros and cons, and they reached out to me as a last ditch effort to see what to do. Just a few quotes. “I’m in my first year of practice and I can’t begin to tell you how often I think of death. Not because I hate my life, I have a wonderful husband and family. But the pressures of daily life as a doctor are overwhelming.”
Mehmet Oz: It’s heart breaking, especially because they don’t think they can talk to anybody. Ironically as a doctor you’re taught to listen to others but you can’t talk yourself. Robyn you’ve been investigating this growing problem, do you think these are being covered up these suicides?
Robyn Symon: Well Doctor Oz patients don’t want to do a hospital where doctors are jumping from the roof, or taking their lives. Also it’s covered up because as you know being the physician, the doctors themselves it’s such a taboo. Doctors are supposed to be superheroes, so if you show signs of weakness well there’s something very wrong with you. So it’s systemic but it’s also personal.
Mehmet Oz: My hope in doing this show is that we can actually stop making suicide medicine’s devastating secret, because it is right now. There was a headline recently about a doctor who snapped and took a cord around a nurses neck. How much of a danger are the people around the doctors facing, when the doctors themselves are at this level of despair?
Pamela Wible: I actually think we’re all at risk from this because in that case he’s a surgeon trying to help his patient and there was a nursing medication error, and he just over reacted, obviously. I don’t condone his behavior, however let’s look at all the people who really need help. We have frustrated, angry physicians in every hospital that are surgeons who need help. We have the patient who’s there, who had the medication error, who needs help. We have the nurse who was assaulted, who needs help. We also have all these suicidal doctors, so I think what we need to do is just stand back and look at the system that breeds an environment in which these people are pitted against one another so that no healing can take place for really anyone. [Update: Further investigation reveals that this surgeon did not strangle this nurse].
Mehmet Oz: That’s probably the big take away.
Ashley Edwards: To Pamela’s point, all the doctors I spoke to said that the competitiveness, working nonstop hours, is taking a toll on their life. One girl I spoke to said, she performed major surgery on a patient after not sleeping for 20 hours straight. If you think about patient care, having an over worked, depressed doctor, what does that mean for your health, and the hospital system?
Mehmet Oz: That’s the real danger, and again in our profession it’s one of us, but it’s the many lives that we touch. That’s why I think we can do better with this. We’re going to put more resources on this topic online, I want people to read it, share it with the people that are taking care of you. Doctors, nurses, everyone in the health care system, you’d be surprised how much help is required out there. You guys can be the agents of change. We’ll be right back.
Filmmaker Robyn Symon explains why she began investigating physician suicides and and how you can start a dialogue with your own doctor. View Oz TV clip #3