Suicidal doctors have excellent access to health care but appear to be under-treated for mental health problems, according to a new University of Michigan analysis.
More physicians than non-physicians in their analysis had known mental health problems prior to suicide but that didn't translate into a higher rate of antidepressant use. Major depression is a known risk factor for suicide, particularly for female physicians.
Stigma, lack of confidentiality, and desire to self-treat may explain why physicians don't seek formal treatment for mental health problems, says lead author Katherine J. Gold, M.D., M.S.W., M.S., assistant professor of family medicine and of obstetrics and gynecology at the University of Michigan Medical School.
They found that physicians who committed suicide were much more likely to have potentially lethal prescription medications in their system – but not medication prescribed for depression.
"Even though this population presumably has very good access to health care, it doesn't appear that they're getting adequate treatment," Gold says. "I think stigma about mental health is a huge part of the story. There is a belief that physicians should be able to avoid depression or just 'get over it' by themselves."
- There was a difference in methods for suicide. Firearms were the No. 1 method for both groups. The No. 2 method for physicians was an overdose, likely related to the physicians' knowledge of lethal drug dosing and prescribing ability.
- On-the-job stress could also be a bigger suicide risk factor for physicians, according to the study. A physician who commits suicide is far less likely to have had a recent death of a friend or family member or a crisis contribute to the suicide but much more likely to have a job problem contribute. Gold says this finding suggests that a physician's identity is strongly linked to the job role and physicians may be particularly vulnerable to problems at work.
This analysis follows up work from another one that addressed risk factors for stress and burnout among medical students.
"This paints a more detailed picture of external events and risk factors in a physician's life before a suicide, rather than just looking at a death certificate," Gold says. "We've seen a number of studies now that show a high rate of anxiety, depression and burnout among both medical students and physicians but we haven't done very much to develop programs to reduce or treat these risk factors and to increase mental health-seeking among physicians.
"There needs to be greater effort to address the stigma, under-diagnosis and treatment of depression among physicians and understand how we can reduce the stress related to work. We need to make mental health treatment more available, safe and confidential."
Published in General Hospital Psychiatry