The epidemic of burnout, depression and suicide in medicine

The suicides of two medical residents in New York City last fall have thrown a spotlight on a real problem among health care professionals, particularly physicians.

Medical students, residents and practicing physicians commonly report symptoms of burnout and depression. Rates vary depending on the group, but range from 20-60%.

Frank suicidal ideations (when someone has serious thoughts or plans about suicide) are reported in 5-10% of physicians.

I was discussing this with a colleague who told me that four of his medical school classmates have taken their own lives.

He graduated in a class of 160 students, so that means that more than 2% of class died by suicide.

Why is burnout – and suicide – so prevalent among medical students, residents and physicians?

At least a part of the problem stems from the fact that people in general and physicians in particular are reluctant to be honest about such things for fear of consequences. Because there remains a remarkably stubborn kind of social stigma associated with depression, those struggling often become more reticent to come forward and seek help.

Unless we can create safe space to seek help without fear of reprisal, nothing is going to change. It is with this goal in mind I decided to share my story.

When I was a young faculty member in my early 40s at the University of Florida College of Medicine, I had the deep sense that I was called to care for cancer patients, teach young physicians the art and science of medicine and do my best to advance the field in the area of clinical research.

I found great fulfillment caring for the bravest and most vulnerable of patients. I loved teaching medical students, residents and fellows and had a modest but successful clinical research program.

With four children, a wonderful wife and a group of very close friends, life felt pretty good. From the outside I was successful, although stressed. Who wouldn’t be, as a cancer doctor? Continue reading

  • James W Lynch is a Professor of Medicine at University of Florida.
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