I’ve been running a physician suicide helpline for nearly ten years. People write me tomes of emails. They’ll conclude with “I feel so much better for sharing this for the first time. Don’t worry about calling me back. Thank you for reading this.” Writing is healing, especially when shared with someone who won’t report you to a medical board. You may write me 24/7 with your confidential email here. I highly recommend that you write daily in your own journal. You are also welcome to join our trauma writing retreats or any of our peer-to-peer support groups.
Emotional sepsis is a life-threatening condition from unprocessed emotional pain in the body that may lead to death.
Emotional I & D is an incision and draining of the emotions by way of slicing open one’s soul and sharing the suffering with a trusted person, therapist, peer-to-peer support group, or even through journaling.
Emotional exudate is the inadvertent, often unconscious, emotional discharge that seeps out of an person in emotional sepsis through bullying, harassment, or other behaviors harmful to those in proximity.
In October, 2021, I coined the above terms while facilitating a weekly support group for suicidal surgeons. One of the best ways to treat emotional sepsis is through emotional incision & drainage in the safety of a curated and confidential peer-to-peer support group targeted to the specific identity of the individual seeking help. I’ve hosted peer-to-peer support groups for suicidal residents, residency drop-outs, struggling medical students, foreign medical graduates, suicidal surgeons, female anesthesiologists, and more . . . Anyone can host a peer-to-peer support group or feel free to drop in for one of ours. I host several each Sunday.
Kevin Pho: Hi, and welcome to the show where we share the stories of the many who intersect with our healthcare system but are rarely heard from. My name is Kevin Pho, founder and editor of KevinMD. Today on the show we have Pamela Wible. She is a family physician, and she’s the author of the free ebook Physician Betrayal: How Our Heroes Become Villains. Pamela, welcome to the show.
Pamela Wible: Thank you so much for having me.
Kevin Pho: So we’ll get into your book and excerpt in a little bit, but first off, can you share your story and journey to where you are today?
Pamela Wible: I’m a family physician. Both my parents are physicians. They warned me not to pursue medicine. And their warnings were economic predictions that have come to pass—loss of physician autonomy, assembly-line medicine, seven-minute visits. What they never warned me about was the emotional impact of the career. So all economic, not emotional. Never once did they talk about their own anxiety, depression, suicidal thoughts. And so I was left in a very isolated state feeling like I was the oddball, the only one having mental health problems, and come to realize we have a real physician suicide crisis that I stumbled upon by personal experience.
Kevin Pho: Of course, you need no introduction in terms of being at the forefront of bringing awareness to physician mental health and physician suicide. Tell me how you first got interested in this issue. And when did you realize that it is such a big issue?
Pamela Wible: We had three physicians that died by suicide in my town, in Eugene, Oregon, in just over a year. And that was in 2012. I was suicidal in 2004, and at the time, I thought I was literally the only suicidal physician that ever walked on this planet.
I’m currently writing my memoir and as I examine my repressed memories from childhood, I’ve realized, “Oh, yes, my mother is a suicidal psychiatrist.” I think I hid that from myself. A lot of us hide our own personal pain because it’s just too much. When I’ve been asked, “Why do you run a suicide helpline?” I’ve said, “Because I survived suicide as a physician, so I want to help my peers.” That’s a superficial answer. The truth is I was an embryo inside of a suicidal psychiatrist so I feel I’ve been running a suicide helpline since I was born or conceived, quite honestly. So I guess that would be the true answer.
Kevin Pho: So you mentioned you run a suicide helpline for healthcare professionals. Please talk more about that.
Pamela Wible: I never intended to run a suicide helpline, yet people were utilizing me as a suicide helpline. Since 2012, when I became vocal after the deaths in my town, people have been wanting to tell me the suicide stories of their children in residency, in medical schools. Suicidal doctors and med students are contacting me—even internationally from Germany and Poland. Especially amid the pandemic, I had a greater influx of calls. I do have a lot of passion for this, and people seem to be thanking me for helping them stay alive. At one point the most common first line in an email from those who sought my help was “I would have been one of your statistics, but you answered the phone, I read your article, I saw you on KevinMD or read your book.” If that’s the response, I feel compelled to keep going. Read more ›
I frequently receive letters requesting help for suicidal friends or family members in medicine.
“Dr. Wible, I am writing to you on behalf of my brother. He was a medical resident, but was terminated. He has been a stellar doctor and wonderful teacher, but has been in deep depression and unable to move on with passive thoughts of suicide with no plans. I’m looking for some help to help him (I’m also a doctor). Thank you.”
My best advice:
1. Open Communication – Physicians rarely feel safe to share their most vulnerable feelings—even with peers or family. Be nonjudgemental and willing listen as long as your brother wishes to talk. I’ve been on calls with a suicidal doctors for more three hours. Once they feel safe, doctors may talk for a long time. To understand why doctors feel suicidal, here’s a free audiobook of physician suicide survival stories and a documentary film on doctor suicide prevention.
2. Peer Support Group – I’ve led many support groups for suicidal physicians and the comfort that isolated physicians feel in a group of like-minded souls is immense. One surgeon shared that the support he received in our surgeon support group (for suicidal surgeons and surgeons who lost colleagues to suicide) has been more helpful than all his inpatient and outpatient psychiatry and therapy sessions. Note: Specialty-specific support groups are best. I suggest your brother join a group for residents who have left residency (not unusual as I know many). When I curate groups on Zoom, I aim for six to eight per session to maintain intimacy. Fewer is better.
3. Journaling – Releasing feelings into a journal is great way to process unbearable pain and anguish. Reading entries to family, friends, and therapists allows for more targeted interventions. I’ve led trauma writing retreats for physicians and they have been very beneficial (even for those who are just listening). I encourage a daily habit of journaling for all physicians. Gift your brother a journal. Encourage him to write and share passages with you.
4. Individual Therapy – Often physicians avoid seeking professional services due to career repercussions including discrimination by state licensing boards and hospital credentialing committees. To ensure 100% privacy and confidentiality, physicians may drive out of town/state to see therapists who use (non-discoverable) paper charts. Your brother should have a professional therapist/psychiatrist of his choice (much better than having one mandated by a board or randomly assigned by inpatient psychiatry). If his symptoms escalate, he can get the care he deserves with someone who knows him well.
5. Career Help – A physician’s identity is often wrapped up in their career. Loss of a career can feel like loss of one’s whole life. A physician’s motivation to pursue medicine may originate in childhood wounds. Gaining insight into one’s own wounds (pre-existing medicine) and trauma (during training and practice) can be helpful for healing and rerouting one’s career. Your brother is obviously a bright and motivated person, and he has so many options. I know students who have dropped out of medical school and/or residency who are happier now than ever. Several have launched their own healing centers or coaching practices—even without a medical license.
Today I was honored to be a participant in a stellar physician panel of international leaders in the field of trauma with Gabor Maté, M.D., Rupa Marya, M.D., Will Van Derveer, M.D., and Jeffrey Rediger, M.D., M.Div.
We explore how traumatized medical students become traumatized doctors emotionally ill-equipped to succeed as healers —and how trauma literacy can transform medicine. We also discuss how social conditions built along lines of inequality and power traumatize people and lead to illness and how we can heal from “incurable” illnesses by connecting with the authentic self.
Register here to view the trauma talks and The Wisdom of Traumafilm—now viewed over 4,000,000 times worldwide.
Trauma is the invisible force that shapes the way we live, the way we love and the way we make sense of the world. It is the root of our deepest wounds. Dr. Maté gives us a new vision: a trauma-informed society in which parents, teachers, physicians, policy-makers and legal personnel are not concerned with fixing behaviors, making diagnoses, suppressing symptoms and judging, but seeking instead to understand the sources from which troubling behaviors and diseases spring in the wounded human soul.
This is an important film that brings greater awareness to the effects of trauma in our world and to the need for a trauma-informed society. In the film, you will see how different people access the wisdom of their trauma so that it becomes a teacher. Trauma can help us learn more about ourselves, our relationships, and the world that we live in.