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.
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.