Shirah Vollmer MD

The Musings of Dr. Vollmer

Suicide Prevention in Healthcare Workers

Posted by Dr. Vollmer on May 10, 2020

Every year an estimated 400 US physicians take their lives (Andrew and Brenner 2015). Global studies indicate that approximately 1 in 3 physicians is experiencing burnout at any given time (Shanafelt et al 2009). This was true before the pandemic. Now, it is too soon to know the statistics, but we have all heard about Dr. Lona Breen who was the medical director of the emergency department at New York Presbyterian Allen Hospital who succumbed to self-inflicted injuries. Although we will never know the details of her mental health journey throughout her years, it seems clear that seeing the devastation of COVID-19 was a contributing factor to her suicide.

Many students, trainees, doctors and health care organizations fail to recognize, report, discuss or pursue treatment for mental distress. Healthcare workers may have too much shame to report mental distress and this is reinforced by health care organizations which demand so much from workers without acknowledging the mental toll.

The stigma of self-reporting depression seems to be magnified amongst medical professionals. Further, their greater knowledge and better access to lethal means, causes health care professionals to have a higher suicide completion rate than the general population. The most common psychiatric diagnoses among medical professionals who complete suicide are affective disorders, alcoholism and substance abuse. The most common means of suicide by health care professionals are lethal medication overdoses and firearms.

When medical professionals feel depressed and they feel less than adequate, the find it even more difficult-and when they can bring themselves to ask, the sometimes find that the help they need is remarkably difficult to obtain. Access to mental health care is a struggle for everyone, including health care professionals. It is hard to find care which meets their economic requirements, their time requirements and care that feels like a good clinician/patient match.

At the same time, some of the reluctance to receive care is self-imposed. Some health care professionals feel an obligation to appear health, perhaps as evidence of their ability to heal others. The myth of invulnerability is hard to penetrate and so it is a deep challenge to question the health care professional when they continue to state that they are “fine” even though they may not appear to be “fine”.

Unconsciously defending against this painful vulnerability, partners or significant others may also fail to notice significant depression or withdrawal, attributing behavioral changes instead to stress or overwork.

Health care professionals as a group like to be in control so situations that decrease the ability to control the environment, the workplace or employment conditions predictably play a higher role in suicide than in populations which are not used to being in control. Before COVID-19, the massive changes that have taken place in medicine in the past several decades leading to increased workloads and regulatory requirements coupled with decreased ability to control income and patient safety and liability concerns also predictably lead to higher levels of stress, job dissatisfaction, burnout and depression in physicians.

There can be fear of treatment from another professional includes fear of loss of privacy, so using insurance to pay for treatment, can feel like an insurmountable barrier as there is fear that insurance companies can be hacked. This is especially likely when the health care professional believes that the consequences of seeking treatment may subject them to stigma, shame or job-loss. As a result, health care professionals can and do prescribe to themselves and this is a huge mistake. Failure to obtain consultation and treatment for depression needlessly and significantly increases the risk of physician suicide.

David Rothenberg MD, University of Minnesota Department of Surgery states that he relives painful moments over his long career being a physician. “I suddenly am recalling a time in February of my internship year when I was so tired, so down, so discouraged that I thought I could not possibly go on. I thought I would have to give up my dream to be a doctor.” He continues “I have lived in denial of the dark side of the medical profession and its unwritten code-the code that says medical students should keep their mouths shut; that residents can be blamed since that is how they will learn; that repeatedly being pushed to the brink of exhaustion is a necessary part of being a caring physician; and that if a few drop out along the way, it is because they were weak and somehow deficient. “He then asks “do we have the courage and will to break through the culture of silence, end institutional cover-up and commit to finding effective ways for the healing profession to care for ourselves as well as our patients?”

Angela Mathew RN, MBA, wife of a physician also speaks openly about the stresses and strains of healthcare. “I wonder about the physicians I work with and who they have to speak with after a challenging case, how they are working through the stressors of the health care culture and environment every day, and whether they bring their souls to work with them each day.

These testimonial were done before COVID-19. Now, we have testimonials from people like Dr. Lawrence Melniker, the vice chair for quality care at the the New York Presbyterian Brooklyn Methodist Hospital who said that the “corona virus presents unusual mental health challenges.” Further, he says “ doctors are accustomed to responding to all sorts of grisly tragedies, but rarely do they have to worry about getting sick themselves, or about infecting their colleagues, friends and family members. And rarely do they have to treat their own co-workers.

At the same time, other health care workers are having different kinds of struggles. They are having to lay staff off. They are worried about making payroll to their remaining staff, paying their rent, and keeping the lights on. To their physician colleagues on the front lines, it may seem trivial to worry about the economics of running a practice, but as with the virus, the downstream effects can be both severe health consequences and severe economic consequences. It is hard to be sensitive to both groups at the same time, but both groups do need compassion and understanding.

What are the action items? How can we translate our understanding of healthcare worker stress to helpful ways in which we can support our colleagues, friends and family? We call them heroes. I think that helps a little, but that also creates greater difficulty for them to admit that they need psychological assistance. The word heroes idealizes them such that the word could impede their ability to ask for help. Perhaps we need to change our language. Perhaps we need to say that healthcare workers should have limited hours, like trainees, and pilots, as a way of understanding that too many hours may be too hard on their mental well being. Perhaps we should give them hazard pay, as a way of saying we understand this is hard, and by paying them more, we are giving them permission to work less, and take more time to themselves.

We can train mental health professionals how to support healthcare workers. I think that to ask for mental health workers to volunteer to help health care professionals misses the point. We need to have mental health professionals train other mental health professionals to help health care professionals during this time. For example, we need to train therapists about how to talk about the complexity of fear going on now. The fear of one’s health, the health of their loved ones, the health of their co-workers, the health of their patients, and the fear of the economic demands stemming from this crisis. We need to train mental health professionals about how to listen to a healthcare professional without becoming more anxious. The mental health care professional needs to learn how to listen and manage their own anxiety at the same time. This skill of listening without becoming overly anxious needs to be trained through discussions, readings and role-playing. In other words, treating this population, the healthcare workers, is a specialty, and as such, special training is mandatory.

The third action item is helping the loved ones of medical professionals. Their stress is also overwhelming. To support a medical professional may mean assuming all domestic responsibilities including home schooling the children, and taking care of geriatric relatives. In addition, offering support to the medical professional is challenging since the support person also needs a lot of support, which the medical professional may not have enough bandwidth to supply. Once again, mental health professionals should receive special training to help the loved ones of medical professionals and once again, this special training should include our old-school tools of readings, case discussions and role-playing.

Finally, there are resources available that we should have handy. There is the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 1-800-273-8255. There is for a list of additional resources.


  1. Andrew, L. B., and B. E. Brenner. 2015. Physician suicide. (accessed May 4, 2016).
  2. Council on Scientific Affairs. 1987. Results and implications of the AMA-APA physician mortality project: Stage ii. Journal of the American Medical Association 257(21):2949–2953.
  3. Shanafelt, T. D., C. M. Balch, G. J. Bechamps, T. Russell, L. Dyrbye, D. Satele, P. Collicott, P. J. Novotny, J. Sloan, and J. A. Freischlag. 2009. Burnout and career satisfaction among American surgeons. Annals of Surgery 250(3):463–471.
  4. Wible, P. 2016. Physician suicide letters—Answered. Eugene, OR: Pamela Wible, M.D., Publishing.

2 Responses to “Suicide Prevention in Healthcare Workers”

  1. Shelly Tannenbaum said

    Nice blog piece, Shirah, very complete. I read a few articles about Dr. Lona Breen, whom you discuss here. Her family and friends seemed actually shocked that she killed herself, and say that they had no signs that she wanted to commit suicide. To them, she had no previous thoughts of doing so, and seemed overwhelmed by the Covid-19 pandemic. In your previous blogs, you had mentioned that mental health issues are exacerbated by the pandemic. It is my belief that Dr. Breen’s death, although tragic, was not simply related to Covid-19, but with the stresses of her profession, and life in general. Thoughts of suicide of course had preyed upon her far before the pandemic and Covid-19 had only strengthened these thoughts. It appears to me that physicians would not take up any mental health services offered by their hospitals for assistance, because they would fear that their colleagues and superiors would find out and it could affect their professional standing. What do you think?

    • Right. I think there are multiple issues going on at once.
      1. She had lethal means to commit suicide (I am guessing opiates)
      2. She had a long history of stress which was ignored because doctors are healers, and therefore they do not need to be healed..or so the thinking goes.
      3. There is shame and fear of job loss if she were “found out” as having mental health issues.
      4. There are no words to describe the COVID-19 pandemic in the New York emergency rooms. Without words, it is hard to process the trauma.
      5. She had COVID-19, so there is the possibility that she had neurological/psychological deficits as a sequelae to the illness
      6. Of course, we do not know her past psychological history, but one can imagine she had previous difficulties, be that in childhood, or adolescence, or young adulthood.
      Those are my speculations, but clearly she reached a tipping point, and the tragedy of her death is overwhelming. Even though I, like most of us have never met her, we feel for her and her family. She was trying to be helpful but she felt hopeless and she could not reach out in a way in which she felt she could obtain the self-care that she needed. This is the beginning, I fear, of many health professionals losing functional capacity as a result of going through these mass casualties. Time will give us more information. Like with the Vietnam war, we did not understand their trauma, until many years later. Thanks, as always.

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