Suicide in Healthcare

This week there was sad news that another junior doctor took his own life while working at a hospital.

It made me remember three years ago when I was called into the consultants office to be told  that a friend and colleague had committed suicide. I was devastated, we all were. Jim had been a larger than life character in the Emergency Department, he was a brilliant nurse so caring and gentle towards his patients and colleagues. He was the first to give a round of hugs on a bad day and did anything he could to make us all laugh. But he also had his problems, and we all knew that, he’d recently been through a marital separation and was struggling to find his way alone in life. I have to say at the time I was incredibly angry with him, for not getting help at the time. Nurses are helpers in the world, I guess that I think if he just contacted one of us at work and told us what was going on he might still be here now. I’m not angry at him now, I’m sad he’s not here and I still miss him all the time.

I remember in university, many years ago, learning about Durkheim and the social theories around suicide, but do you know what, no one in my career has ever said that this is an epidemic within the healthcare professions. Looking at literature from US, UK and Australia, this is a problem worldwide. No one has ever said to me to watch out for signs of myself not coping or how to approach colleagues who are not coping.

I don’t understand why healthcare professionals are actually not much good at looking after themselves or are the last people to get any help. Myself included in that! Is it because of the shame of not being able to cope when everyone around you looks like they are coping well. I can guarantee that if you feel that you are not coping there will be at least one colleague that feels exactly the same as you. As a manager I learned that whatever crisis one person was going through publicly in the department, another was going through something much worse and usually in private. I felt in a privileged position if one of the team trusted me enough with their personal issues and insecurities, as a manager I could then provide them with some support.

I personally think that acknowledging the human factors affecting yourself in healthcare is important. For example when someone is tired, overworked, stressed, it’s not possible to look after the patients with the same ability. It is important to be able to switch off from personal problems when at work, but also acknowledge that when that is not possible, it’s time to reevaluate what is going on and what extra support is required.

There is absolutely no shame in getting some help, it doesn’t have to be through work but it can be. From my experience it would depend on my relationship with my manager as to whether I approached them for help, but there are usually opportunities to have clinical supervision, occupational health services, a family doctor could also point in the right direction.

So what have I learned

  • Importance of talking to people … a problem shared is a problem halved!
  • Build a social network outside of work.
  • Have some interests away from work
  • As a manager be approachable, learn about your team.
  • Learn what your work and occupational health team can do to support you.
  • Keep work and home separate as much as possible.
  • Learn to look after yourself, understand yourself and how you can manage stress.
  • Get help if needed and don’t be ashamed of it.
  • If a colleague appears stressed or not right, ask them what’s going on … it might just say their life.
  • Remember suicidal thoughts are usually temporary and they will pass, get some support till they pass!

Helpful resources