Rising Suicide Rates Prompts Real Talk at Surgery Conference

One surgeon shared her personal story with colleagues to address mental health crisis
By Gina Carey,  Newser Staff
Posted Oct 15, 2023 5:05 PM CDT
Doctor Addresses Worrying Suicide Rates Among Surgeons
   (Getty / Georgiy Datsenko)

Physicians have higher suicide rates than the general population, with surgeons as one of the top groups at risk of taking their lives in the medical field. The Guardian takes a deep dive into how Carrie Cunningham, an assistant professor of surgery at Harvard Medical School, addressed the issue head on in her outgoing speech as president of the Association of Academic Surgery. After losing a friend and colleague to suicide, then later tackling her own issues with depression, addiction, and suicidal ideation, Cunningham decided some real talk was long overdue. In a room packed with 2,000 surgeons listening on in stunned silence, she told her story, knowing many of the those watching would relate.

"It's a real watershed moment in that particular profession to be able to say it's okay for us to talk about these things, and let's change the subculture of surgery," said one attendee. The Guardian reports that between 300 to 400 doctors die by suicide every year in the US, which is the equivalent to a medical school's graduating class. The high-pressure, super human role surgeons take on leaves little room for emotion. "We all hide our grief, suffer in silence," one surgeon described in losing a patient. "The pain can be close to debilitating."

The culture of stoicism and overwork starts in medical school and continues in residencies, where surgeons in training have recently been forced to cut down their hours from upwards of 100 down to 80 per week. "They feel miserable," says Jessica Gold, a psychiatrist who focuses in physician wellbeing. "We basically think that feeling bad is part of medicine, and we can't identify that we're doing poorly, or that we should take time for ourselves and figure out that we actually might be depressed."

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Women physicians suffer burnout and suicide at double the rate of their male counterparts, MedPageToday notes, and Cunningham was one of them. She described going on vacation as "torture for me ... because when I sat still, all the internal stuff just percolated." After undergoing treatment and delivering her viral speech, her phone hasn't stopped ringing. She tells the colleagues thanking her that she doesn't have all the answers, but that she knows "it won't get better unless we talk about it openly and honestly." If you are struggling with thoughts of suicide or worried about a friend or loved one, call or text the Suicide & Crisis Lifeline at 988. It's free and available 24/7. (Read other stories about mental health.)

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