The Toll Of Health Care: Suicide Risk Among Professionals


                                                           By Michele Luckenbaugh

Our health care workers—nurses, physicians, and support staff—are at a heightened risk of committing suicide. Plain and simple. The emotional and physical toll on our health care professionals has been ever-increasing, exacerbated by the COVID pandemic but still remains long after the official title “pandemic” has faded into the background.

Over 20 percent of the physicians in the United States are experiencing symptoms of depression, but fear professional repercussions if they seek treatment. Increased workload, restrictions, and regulations all add to the level of burden experienced. In addition, many work under a system of corporate management that has little regard for the welfare of its employees. Their ability to perform the full scope of their profession has been severely limited, and they have been relegated to a more subservient role, “a worker bee in the hive of corporate greed.” With one completed suicide every day, U.S. physicians have the highest suicide rate of any profession. In addition, the number of physician suicides is more than twice that of the general population, new research shows. A systematic literature review of physician suicide shows that the suicide rate among physicians is 28 to 40 per 100,000, more than double that in the general population. This is likely attributable to doctors’ immense professional burden and neglect of their well-being. Our doctors must know that their mental health issues may be addressed without the fear that their medical licensures are in jeopardy.

It was reported that from 2017 to 2018, an estimated 729 American nurses committed suicide. The fear is that the worst has yet to occur. The traumatic stress of the pandemic and now, the shortage of nurses at the bedside, have placed an immense burden on those nurses who remain. Registered nurses have a suicide rate of 16 percent. Judy Davidson, a UC San Diego nursing and psychiatry researcher, coauthored one of the first papers looking specifically at nurse suicide, published in 2019. She found suicide rates nearly 58 percent higher for female nurses and 41 percent higher for male nurses compared to the general U.S. population. Elevated suicide risk among nurses might be the result of their work as primary caregivers for patients, where nurses provide the majority of bedside care, work in highly stressful conditions, and have limited autonomy. In the hospital setting, the nurse is the chief point of contact between the patient and the health care facility, so it is vitally important that the mental health of our nursing professionals be addressed.

What follows is my fictionalized account of what is, unfortunately, a reality in today’s news headlines. Hopefully, it will help emphasize the urgency of addressing the mental health issues of our health care professionals.

Desperation, harassment, exhaustion, burnout,

A recipe for suicide, without a doubt.

From the time she could recite the alphabet,

Molly knew her destiny, no secret she kept.

She soothed her faithful dog, Fred,

After a skirmish with a skunk, where Fred had fled.

She tended to her brother’s knee,

When his skateboard flip went awry, you see.

Molly’s determination, her dream so bright,

Led her to earn her nursing degree, a guiding light.

Pride and accomplishment in her heart did swell,

She made her dream real, a tale to tell.

A difficult job in the ER she’d embrace,

She gave her all, heart and soul, to that place.

But the job demanded more than she could give,

Long hours, short staff, a challenging way to live.

“The sky is falling,” she whispered in despair,

Her cries for help met only by empty air.

Long hours, short staffing, no support in sight,

Took a toll on her spirit, day and night.

In the darkness before each shift, she’d cry,

But her patients needed her, so she’d dry her eye.

The healthcare system, once her refuge, now betrayed,

Isolation and desperation had left her dismayed.

She saw only one way to end the torment,

A tear-stained letter, her final statement.

Goodbye to her family, she found peace at last,

Relief from the sorrow that had held her fast.

Rest in peace, sweet Molly, your pain is gone,

But for nurses and doctors, the struggle lives on.

Burned out, feeling alone, ignored by the day,

In a system that’s failing, in disarray.

The downward spiral continues to unfold,

Sapping life’s breath from the brave and the bold.

When will their cries be heard, we implore?

When will we act, and help restore?

Demand a change for those who feel the despair,

In healthcare, for those who, like Molly, still care.

Let’s find another way, a path to heal,

For our healers, so their pain we can repeal.

Michele Luckenbaugh is a patient advocate.


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