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Local medical students act to prevent suicides among doctors

An estimated 400 physicians commit suicide every year. Kansas City medical students joined a campaign to bring more attention to the problem.
An estimated 400 physicians commit suicide every year. Kansas City medical students joined a campaign to bring more attention to the problem.

When Don Milligan talks about doctor suicides, he talks about an old colleague of his, a good doctor who played jazz and zydeco tuba.

“I was a real fan of his,” Milligan said. And then, one day, the tuba-playing doctor was gone.

He committed suicide, as do about 400 physicians each year in the United States, a higher rate than most other professions, according to recent studies. Milligan, a semi-retired doctor who practiced at the University of Kansas Medical Center, spoke about his old friend Saturday at a forum on physician suicides organized by students at the Kansas City University of Medicine and Biosciences.

The forum, a “Day of Solidarity” organized online through the Care2 network, was part of a national campaign to stop physician suicides. Medical students, professors and doctors hosted similar talks in 10 other cities, including St. Louis. About two dozen people attended the event in Kansas City.

Such events are necessary, organizers say, because the alarming rate of suicides in the medical community is often surrounded by silence.

Whether because of depression, job stress or easy access to lethal knowledge and materials, the U.S. has lost more than a doctor a day to suicide for many years. Medical students are also at risk.

Officials at the Kansas City University medical school said they were not aware of any suicides or attempted suicides among their students. But a recent survey showed that at least 40 percent of the students had experienced depression or anxiety.

That was below a national rate of 54 percent, but still alarmingly high, said Elizabeth Alex, a university spokeswoman.

“That’s not where we want to be, obviously,” Alex said. “We saw that and said, ‘We’re going to have to do something more.’ 

The university has long had a psychologist on staff. Now, the administration is organizing a team — including a psychologist and other students — to check on students for signs of struggling.

The team will conduct surveys of students four times a year to identify those who should be offered individual help, said Jim Dugan, the university’s psychologist.

“I think physicians may be more hesitant to ask for help,” Dugan said. Like other successful people, many may think, “I shouldn’t need help. I should be able to figure it out myself,” he said.

“I think that’s how people get into jams,” Dugan said.

The problem of physician suicide is not new — it was estimated in 1977 that the country lost the equivalent of a small medical school to suicide. According to the American Foundation for Suicide Prevention, suicide deaths are as much as 400 percent higher among female physicians compared with women in other professions. Medical students have rates of depression as much as 30 percent higher than the general population.

The reasons are not fully understood, but may include job stress and burnout, especially in a changing medical profession.

Organizers of Saturday’s events have also circulated a petition urging the Association of American Medical Colleges and Accreditation Council for Graduate Medical Education to take action to prevent student and resident suicides. The petition, started by doctors Ashley Maltz and Pamela Wible, has gathered more than 66,000 signatures.

Wible, writing two years ago for the Washington Post, said part of the problem is that doctor suicides are often “hushed up.”

“Physician suicide is a triple taboo,” Wible wrote. “Americans fear death. And suicide. Your doctor’s committing suicide? Even worse. The people trained to help us are dying by their own hands.”

Milligan, the doctor whose tuba-playing friend killed himself years ago, urged the students gathered on Saturday to talk with one another, be open about their problems and watch themselves for signs that they need to ask for help.

Real trouble may not always be obvious, Milligan said. He recalled that he had spoken with his friend by phone the morning he died. They laughed together.

“Laughter doesn’t mean you’re not depressed,” he said. “I would like to still have him around.”

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