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Many surgeons not seeking help for suicidal thoughts
January 18th, 2011
03:45 PM ET

Many surgeons not seeking help for suicidal thoughts

Many surgeons with thoughts of suicide aren't asking for help, according to a new study in the Archives of Surgery. Researchers found one in 16  surgeons reported having suicidal thoughts in the previous year, but only a few of them actually asked for help from a mental health provider.

"Physicians don't fully understand or trust how that information is being used," says lead study author Dr. Tait D. Shanafelt. He says they fear their medical license will be harmed. "Eighty percent of state licensing boards actually ask if they are under the care of a mental health professional and when you renew your medical license 50 percent of licensing boards ask the same thing," says Shanafelt. But he says most of the licensing boards are not using this information in a negative way.  He wants surgeons to get the help they need if they are depressed or having thoughts of suicide so that they can recover.

Death from suicide is more common among physicians than the general population and among other professionals, according to the study. Researchers found in the general population the number of doctors considering suicide decreases with age, but in surgeons between the age of 45-54 they found the prevalence of these suicide thoughts actually increased.

Dr. John Hanks, who is the former chair of the American College of Surgeons Committee on Competency and Surgeon Health, says the numbers in this study are sobering. He says "younger people can take it, but the 45-54 age group is three times [more likely to have suicide thoughts]. Those are the people who are supposed to be hitting their stride."

Hanks says this research needs to continue to examine these trends. He also believes young surgeons need to be educated about the risks of burnout due to the stress that comes with working many late-night shifts and/or working in small communities, for example.

Researchers suggest these self-destructive thoughts could be a result of medical error within the last three months, job burnout and depression.  Doctors who felt they had made a medical error were three times more likely to have suicidal thoughts. Being divorced was also a contributing factor according to the study. Two things that lessened the likelihood of suicidal thoughts were being married and having kids. "Physicians often think they are immune to some of the health problems that affect their patients," says Shanafelt who is also an associate professor of medicine at the Mayo Clinic.

The study was part of a larger study of American surgeons in 2008 that looked at the prevalence and potential implications of burnout in surgeons.  Almost 8,000 surgeons participated in the study.


soundoff (15 Responses)
  1. mind your business

    People who need or want help should always have access to it. It is nobody's business whether someone is under the care of any kind of health professional no matter what kind of job they hold. If someone has been observed engaging in behavior directly deleterious to the performance of their job, then they need to be evaluated for job fitness and not before. Everyone wants to be given the chance to heal without being fired but nobody wants to extend that courtesy to others. Actual behavior raises flags, not a diagnosis.

    January 18, 2011 at 16:42 | Report abuse | Reply
  2. Jack

    They need Jesus. "And of His fulness we have all received, and grace upon grace." (John chapter 1) Read the gospel of John.

    January 18, 2011 at 17:04 | Report abuse | Reply
    • Bob

      that's right, religion never caused any problems...

      January 18, 2011 at 20:00 | Report abuse |
    • ReligionSchmiligion

      This would be excellent advice if Jesus could cure depression. Are you going to suggest that they follow up their Bible reading with a visit to a healing crusade? The only person these surgeons "need" is a psychiatric professional. When Jesus shows up at my house with a degree from Johns Hopkins we'll talk.

      My spouse and sister – in – law both have a mental illness. He is an atheist. She is an evangelical Christian. They are both living healthy, happy lives due to (drum roll, please) MEDICINE and THERAPY. Jesus has nothing to do with it.

      January 18, 2011 at 21:03 | Report abuse |
    • Pat

      diidn't work for the Heaven's Gate cult.

      January 19, 2011 at 03:19 | Report abuse |
  3. angelikabertrand

    Why must the Religious folks always squak their faked Christian believes up on everything? People do face a lot of challenges. Any profession especially that of Surgeon's are dealing with life and death situations on a daily basis. I always wondered how they coped? If they had support in that area? There is nothing wrong with admitting that you have thoughts of suicide. Actually there is something wrong with stigmaticism in our society. And that is what makes me so angry. Cause we could avoid a lot of problems in our society, if we were open about mental problems! That being said: Christian right folks, ought to take a lesson in their own plastamy. Teach your self to Love your self!

    January 18, 2011 at 23:48 | Report abuse | Reply
  4. Harleychaps

    Mind, Body and Soul. Suicide impacts all three, however is rooted in the Soul. Call it your inner self, core, or Id, the problem is that an individual is confronted with a situation that they are challenged with, (humiliation). Their inner self/soul is damaged and is not resiliant enough to compensate for the damage incurred. Thus the soul convinces the mind to instruct the flesh to end life. Resilancy of the inner core is the only answer. A weak core is a weak individual, regardless of brain or muscle mass.

    January 19, 2011 at 08:13 | Report abuse | Reply
    • innerjoy

      Actually it's in the mind:)

      January 19, 2011 at 11:00 | Report abuse |
  5. Jim

    Surgeons are generally people of above average intelligence and skill with extensive training in medical fields and knowledge of how medical information can be used. Of course they don't seek help. They know exactly how it will be permanently recorded and might at any point be used against them to destroy their livelihood. If 'most' boards don't use the information that means that some do and there is no way to know if your board might change from one that doesn't to one that does next year.

    Our society's progressive destruction of anonymity means what you do follows you forever and could at any point be deliberately leaked, accidentally left unguarded or deliberately misused. It can always be subject to legal inquiry from the government or a civil suit, particularly given privilege waiver being required for most health insurance or even for treatment. We should expect more avoidance of help as these issues become more widely known.

    January 19, 2011 at 10:02 | Report abuse | Reply
  6. ceg3

    As a surgeon I can tell you it's rarely the practice of medicine (which most enjoy) but the BUSINESS of medicine that is depressing and stressful. You never know when the government or some insurance company is going to cut your throat with some new oppressive regulation or reimbursement reduction that will be catastrophic to your business and force you to lay off employees. Mix that lack of hope for an improving business environment, the threat of lawsuits, taking call and the only refuge you have is a happy marriage. Take that away and, voila, life can look pretty bleak.

    January 19, 2011 at 10:39 | Report abuse | Reply
  7. Philip

    Once again, greedy individuals have founf a way to profit from a natural human emotion: depression. It is natural to become depressed in the face of events that are in themselves very depressing. Once again our blind leaders and those who swear by them have demonized a quite natural human response and made it something to be ashamed of even to the point of covering up one's depression for fear it could cost them residency. The people who aren't ever depressed are the wacko's. The overly-depressed are those who were naturally depressed at one time, and have been drugged, not to cure their depression, but to maintain it for a lifetime. Love is the cure for depression, but since Love can't be bottled nor prescribed, those tasked with finding cures don't even mention it.

    January 19, 2011 at 13:42 | Report abuse | Reply
  8. Odalice yolanda feliz

    they need to take care of themselves..

    January 19, 2011 at 21:50 | Report abuse | Reply
  9. loner

    My experience and a suggestion based on that: Never Never and Never seek help. Depression is temporary. Take a break.. Try for a small change. But once you go to the so called helping people you end up transferring your decision making to someone who might be in a worse state of mind than you. You do not want to be a regret for the rest of your life.

    January 20, 2011 at 05:07 | Report abuse | Reply
  10. cindychicago

    Finally safe way to abrade stretch marks at home http://www.medicalcrystals.com

    January 21, 2011 at 04:38 | Report abuse | Reply
  11. ruraldoc

    It is not just surgeons but primary care docs and all other docs. If you get help you have to tell the board and if they choose to pull you license then you would be even more likely to commit suicide due to loss over everything. Sleep deprivation along with dealing with the gov and insuracne companies will drive you to burnout and thoughs of suicide. I treat many docs for depression and I can tell you that many more need treated. I suspect depression is at least double the normal incidence in the population. Physicians that have children see there responsibility to there family as more important than their own misery and will be less likely to commit suicide. As a primary care physician I see the general public thinks we are all wealthy but nothing is further from the truth. I have a 1700$ a month student loan payment with no deduction on interest and have taken a loss 3 out of the last 4 years despite working 70 hours a week. after taxes and loan payments I make less than most school teachers and have little to show for my work. I work on christmas day most years and I am in the office every weekend working on charts. I can not afford to take a vaction as I am a solo rural family doc and can not afford to pay someone to watch my practice when I am gone. I have had one week off in the last 4 years not including medical education and have not taken home a paycheck for the last month.

    February 2, 2011 at 08:55 | Report abuse | Reply

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