Suicide and the Single Female Doc

Posted: January 10, 2007 by Doc in Endings, Medical, Medical career, Medicine

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SUICIDE HIGH AMONG FEMALE DOCTORS
MORE THAN DOUBLE THE RATE OF GENERAL PUBLIC
from the Harvard News Office

(What the %@#*! Do you mean that in addition to the ER docs not looking anything like George Clooney and neurosurgeons being far from “McDreamy”, I am now at 2.27 times increased risk of suicide compared to the general population? I need a drink.)

“Male doctors take their own lives at a higher rate than the general population of white men in the United States. That’s been known for some time. Now, the largest, latest study of physician suicides in this country has found that female doctors take their lives much more often.

The study was undertaken by Harvard Medical School researchers following the death of a young female physician who took her life in the School’s library.

Eva Schernhammer and Graham Colditz examined the results of 25 studies of physician suicides and concluded that male doctors killed themselves at a rate 41 percent higher than that of other men and women. The more startling finding was that female doctors take their lives at a rate more than twice (2.27 times) that of the general public.

“We do not yet have a clear answer to why this is,” admits Schernhammer, who works at Brigham and Women’s Hospital, a Harvard teaching affiliate in Boston. “There is evidence that depression, drug abuse, and alcoholism, possibly related to stress, are often associated with suicides of physicians. Female physicians in particular have been shown to have a higher frequency of alcoholism than women in the general population.”

The women may feel more stress because of gender bias and an increased need to succeed in this male-dominated profession. That seems likely, but Schernhammer says there have been no conclusive studies to back it up. She also notes that being single and not having children, which applies more to women than men in medicine, “has been linked to higher suicide rates.” (italics mine)

According to another study, done last year, the most common way that doctors take their lives is by poisoning themselves, often with drugs taken from their offices or laboratories.

Critical of themselves

The Harvard researchers published the results of their investigation in the December issue of the American Journal of Psychiatry. In this report, they cite evidence from other studies that doctors who kill themselves “are more critical of others and of themselves, and are more likely to blame themselves for their own illnesses.”

Other studies conclude that doctors feel uncomfortable turning to their colleagues for help. Instead, they may “resort to alcohol or drugs and isolation. Once they seek help, it appears likely they are not taken seriously enough by their fellow colleagues.” One investigation found that more than half of physicians who sought help later committed suicide. Although they had been diagnosed with psychiatric problems, none were hospitalized before they took their lives.”

Read the full article in the Harvard Gazette (Feb. 3,2005)

Shoot, I better get married and start popping out kids fast! Oops, too late, there goes my last viable ovum. It atrophied while I was attending an interminable dinner in honor of the retiring department head, or maybe while I was doing a consult in the ICU, or more likely while I was watching the “Law and Order” marathon last weekend.

I can blame no one but myself, since I used to have a predilection for my emotionally unavailable colleagues who like to wield scalpels (even when they’re psychiatrists), plus my answers to the Medical Student Compatibility Test, I admit, remain mostly A’s.

But I refuse to hide behind the “men are intimidated by intelligent women” myth. Rather, I’d say women are more tolerant than men of self-obsessed, narcissistic workaholics particularly if they have an “MD” after their name and make at least a six figure salary. A reasonably attractive, open, kind, and considerate person should be able to find a loving companion even if they’re more intelligent, as long as they don’t:

  • require that they be addressed as “Doctor” at all times (except in bed)
  • constantly remind people of their 4.00 GPA
  • constantly remind people that they “save lives”
  • Instead of blaming myself (which would make me self-critical and increase my risk for suicide), I blame the media. I blame “Dr. Quinn, Medicine Woman”, “General Hospital”, and “Gray’s Anatomy” for raising my expectations that my romantic life instead of withering away, would flower and bloom during residency/ practice, just waiting for the hunky mountain man/ surgeon/ cranky but brilliant diagnostician beyond the double swinging doors.

    I don’t want to make too light of something that is a definite health concern for myself and others of my ilk. Depression, isolation, substance abuse are risks for anyone in a demanding and stressful profession and single people usually have less family resources to rely on when these problems arise. But they don’t have to. Someone who is deliberately single (“single by choice” as opposed to “single by accident”, see links below) can cultivate family, community, and friends. I have a group of other single female docs I go out with regularly, sort of “Sex and the City Hospital”. At this point in our lives, we certainly have less stress than other working women who are juggling full-time careers and raising families, but we have to learn to deal with other stuff as well.

    And if you really want to revive the single female physician’s will to live, just restore Dr. Doug Ross to his rightful place in the ER.

    dr-doug-ross.jpg
    “Living Single” Links:

    JAMA Consensus Statement on Depression and Physician Suicide
    The Secret Lives of Single Women
    The New Single Woman

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    Comments
    1. idcrossroads says:

      I hope this does not mean that only unstable women end up in the medical field! I think we are immune to this syndrome by blogging, we are already letting off steam. Yeah, I agree that the medical shows are rather unrealistic. But I love ‘Scrubs’. ๐Ÿ™‚

    2. docwhisperer says:

      Thank goodness for ‘Scrubs’ and for the blogosphere! Since getting onto this topic, I looked on the net for resources for suicide prevention for physicians, female or otherwise. Guess what? There aren’t any! I’ll keep looking, Watch this space.

    3. trenchdoc says:

      We, as physicians, simply do not reach out to one another enough to even know if someone is having trouble, but honestly, other than our families who could we count on more than one another?
      Nice blog, DW.

    4. HONDO says:

      Perhaps it has somethnig to do with being driven to be a doctor since they are, doing nothing but homework and study through HS, College, MedSchool, (then residency)….

      Finally, after being so focused on being a Doctor they become one and the little subconcious wonders why they aren’t happy.
      “when does the happy start? I’ve worked so hard?”

    5. i’ve linked this page to one of my blog posts. ๐Ÿ™‚

    6. This is a very interesting study and corroborates a lot of the trials and tribulations of my fellow single gal docs. I linked your excellent post to my blog.

    7. Sonia says:

      Sometimes i feel like it’s the status quo to be desperately wanting to fit into the thing and be part of the race…which is why I feel it is necessary to slow down if we are getting too caught up in all the “work” that we lose sight of the pleasure of it.

      However, on a side note, I don’t know if it’s just me, but I get a little annoyed sometimes when somebody asks me why, at 28, i’m still unmarried unlike everyone else (they’re not doctors though. :-p).

    8. sara says:

      hello doctors,…single female doctors are invited to join this group
      http://www.facebook.com/group.php?gid=125465224147434#!/group.php?gid=125465224147434

    9. Robin Rothrock MD says:

      I am so glad I ran across this, unfortunately it seems to be several years too late. I thought I was the only one out here. Are there any support groups for us…not sit around boo hoo groups but as you described..like “Sex and the City” groups getting together and going out. I can really identify with this doc who posted this..I am one of those women who went into medicine and when I looked up I was alone. I was never alone before I went to med school, nor while I was in med school or residency..men flocked around me. But once I got out it seems like I was not the helpless women some many men want. I am still really very attractive…I don’t know what happened. I can empathize with the thought pattern of the single female doc who gets depressed..not enough to kill myself..but I guess in a nutshell.. it’s like I worked so hard to get to the top, only to step out and find nobody is there..nobody but recruiters who want to sell me to a CEO who will fire me if I don’t adhere to the computer program who keeps tab of my time and tells me that I am not to spend but 3 min’s per patient..or no more than 5 min’s if its a trauma case…I am an ER doc.
      Uh oh!…. :)… this above article is so true…I sit here on my night off drinking my wine (first glass but I intend to have another!) writing a response that probably nobody will read. I just want to know if there is a support group. I was a surgery resident before I when I first started out..and there was a support group called “Chicks with Knives” ..but I never got to attend because I was always working..I ended up leaving that residency position because I felt all alone..I never got to bond with the other women..and there were only a few.

    10. Doc says:

      Thanks for the comment, please feel free to post what you feel comfortable with on this thread. Someone is listening and and feels for you. You can also look up another blog:
      ( sexandthescalpel.blogspot.com ) which talks about some of the issues you mentioned. I would also recommend looking at 2 other posts on this site which might be helpful to you:
      https://docwhisperer.wordpress.com/2007/02/01/meditation-and-health/
      https://docwhisperer.wordpress.com/2007/08/11/positive-psychology-the-science-of-happiness/
      Maybe you can start your own blog too, I find it is somewhat therapeutic (just be mindful of privacy issues). As for a support group, I am not aware of any, but it’s really just people listening and empathizing with each other. If you’re interested, we can start one here and a group on facebook.

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