Physician suicides due to COVID-19 & mental health impact to doctors

Reporter: Here on CBS in Los Angeles every week we’re taking a deeper look into the toll that this pandemic is taking on our mental health and how we can manage our new normal. Our healthcare workers are facing trauma no one could ever prepare for—a doctor in New York, for example, who recovered from COVID-19 and then continued to treat other patients even ended up taking her own life. Joining me now to talk about this is Dr. Pamela Wible. She runs a suicide prevention hotline for physicians and is also the author of Physician Suicide Letters—Answered. (free audiobook) Doctor, thank you for the time such a serious and important topic right now.

Dr. Wible: Thank you for having me and thank you for broaching this topic which has been so taboo quite honestly for a long time.

Reporter: Describe what these healthcare workers are going through.

Dr. Wible: There are really two categories of healthcare workers—the people on the frontlines who are absolutely overworked and completely taxed by the level of trauma and then there is another group of healthcare workers who are almost underemployed and feel helpless to contribute and they have a sense of guilt. I think there are stresses on both sides and there’s actually more than one doctor suicide I’m involved with right now related to COVID-19 so I’m very concerned that this could be a bigger issue over time.

Reporter: So lot of the stories are coming in through your hotline. Tell me about that.

Dr. Wible: I’ve been running this hotline for eight years and this is the first time I’ve ever had calls with people where they’re short of breath suffering from COVID-19 so they can’t speak and we have to do suicide helpline calls by text. People have been so distraught, crying so much they can’t even talk on the phone and so I’m having to do back-and-forth emails. I’ve just never seen healthcare workers in the state of despair.

Reporter: Oh my gosh. It’s heartbreaking and I think for all of us we feel helpless. The help you are giving them is just so critical right now. These calls are so different than what obviously you’ve had before this pandemic.

Dr. Wible: There were definitely suicidal physicians before and actually physicians have the highest suicide rate of any profession—so this was the pandemic before the pandemic. The COVID-19 pandemic is opening the Pandora’s box for the world to see really what goes on with the mental health of our healthcare workers.

Reporter: And shining light and maybe all the extra resources that they need and even when this pandemic is over you think the mental toll is going to last obviously much longer.

Dr. Wible: Yes, for months, years. We’re going to really need to buckle down and actually stop the stigma and discrimination within medicine for seeking mental health care. A lot of physicians don’t seek care because they are stigmatized and could lose their license or have license repercussions if they even admit they have depression or suicidal thoughts.

Resources: Physician-friendly states for mental health. Journal special edition on physician mental health.

Reporter: I mentioned feeling helpless. I’m not a therapist but what what can people do then to help our healthcare workers? What can we do?

Dr. Wible: I think just for the average patient it would be so great if people can just be appreciative. A thank you card from a patient has actually prevented physician suicides so if you can just be thankful and not write online negative reviews when somebody is running late. They may have just had a death in the next room. Compassion from all sides is really needed right now.

Reporter: No doubt, and your hotline how is it different than ones not set up for healthcare workers?

Dr. Wible: Healthcare workers (especially physicians) feel nervous calling a generic 1-800 suicide helpline. In part they might be talking to their friend’s college-age daughter, you know, they don’t want to be reported to the medical board. They also know that people who are non-physicians don’t really understand the life of a physician. They don’t want to try to explain what internship and residency is to somebody who has never been through this. We need each other actually. Physicians need to hear from other physicians who have survived suicidal thinking—like myself, which is why I feel so well-equipped to help others.

Reporter: Wow. Absolutely. This is so good to get out there. Dr. Wible, thank you so much for what you’re doing and for your time and we appreciate all the healthcare workers so much.

Dr. Wible: Thank you so much for covering this. Really appreciate it.

Reporter: Stay safe, stay healthy, please. We have some information we want to share because there is help and support available.

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7 comments on “Physician suicides due to COVID-19 & mental health impact to doctors
  1. Angeline Chu says:

    Wellness Center for health care workers. I an an Critical Care and High Risk labor and delivery RN. I also suffered from PTSD and fighting from suicidal ideation, everyday. In order to survive.

  2. Kernan Manion MD says:

    Extraordinary work Pamela!

  3. K Murray Leisure MD says:

    These are the times that try men’s souls. With so much sickness, despair, financial ruin, death and dying, we need to take time and step back each day that we live. Count not what is lost but what we have. Sunshine, clean water, food staples, some security. The daffodils still bloom; the ocean waves roll in; butterflies and bees find their blossoms; mothers and families stroll about laughing behind their masks. We need to take time to smell the roses. Even the Lord Jesus retired periodically from the crowds to pray and meditate alone in the desert wilderness or on a mountaintop. Pastor Martin Luther King, Jr: We shall overcome. THANK YOU to all physicians, health care workers, first responders, mail carriers, “essential workers”, and worried families. With the Lord’s help, let us carry on. THANK YOU, Dr Wible, for this ministry. You represent the best of Wellesley College, Non ministrari sed ministrare. Peace and grace to all.

  4. Bill McConochie says:

    It seems to me that we might be able to determine what differentiates those citizens who are prone to ptsd in military combat and/or medical careers from those who can endure the stress without breaking down. If so, we could screen out those who are vulnerable and steer them to lower stress careers, or lower stress military or medical specialties. As a research psychologist, I would be willing to work on this approach. I already have a questionnaire that measures 35 psychological facets that are related to suicidal tendencies. I have tried unsuccessfully to interest the VA in DC in this instrument, in spite of 22 veteran suicides per DAY in the U S. I seem to be lacking in “marketing” skills. Such skills weren’t part of grad school. And I don’t relish “selling”. Maybe I should look for a marketing affiliate. Or maybe I should just retire. I’ll be 81 in mid-May and can afford to. But I love helping people. Dilemma.

    • Barbara Edelstein M.D. says:

      You are absolutely correct, As a psychiatrist who saw mostly young adults ages 18 to 25 , I treated many who were absolutely not resilient enough to me in the armed services. Invariably they were returned home with severe PTSD if they were not given medical discharges before that. I could not imagine what those recruiting offices were thinking. And as for you being 81, Good for you! I did not throw in the sponge until I was 84, and I really think that was too young. If you have drive, imagination and good health age should not be a limiting factor, Obviously you still have alot to offer.

  5. Iris Black says:

    Thank you for raising such important points. Health care professionals are under great stress because of the COVID-19 pandemic. I feel doctors should also consider opting for therapy and exercises if they find themselves unable to deal with it. Many times, doctors tend to ignore their own health because of work related pressures.

  6. Daphne Marett says:

    I have had a lot of bad dr.s and I pray that the one’s that struggle especially in school should find a lot field cuz it’s only going to get worse!!
    However the ones that do care you will be in my prayers. One thing I have learned is dr.s are human. The ones that hurt more than they help should STOP NOW!! As a patient for 27 years out of 50. Having unnecessary surgeries. If it weren’t for one INSANE DOCTOR THAT NO ONE WOULD STOP. Even after having to leave At LEAST 12 HOSPITALS!! His NAME IS DR.MICHEAL ROSNER??He has left our state NORTH CAROLINA maybe but BEWARE!! THE STATE BOARD SHOULD ALSO BE CKECK OUT AND FIRED!! Maybe there would be less suicidal doctors and patients! Also the methodone program is BULL SHIT JUST Keeps PEOPLE DEPENDENT ON SOMETHING, that’s not for pain. Killed my nieces unborn child full term! They actually gave her more because she said the baby was taking her meds!! They did ! She DEAD BY THE WAY FROM TAKING SOMETHING THAT ENDED up being fentanyl. When it was in patch form people knew now because of drug Seeking addicts the people that really need pain meds USUALLY DUE TO A DR.s MISTAKE!!! STAY AWAY FROM SURGERY you will still be in pain could be a lot worse!!
    You know there’s probably a lot more patients killing themselves because of pain and no hope in sight and no one who cares like a doctor!
    What do we do???

    I’ve been in extremely bad pain for 9 years. He was under suspension of doing the surgery on me but he did t

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