When Psychiatrists Experience Suicide

from the American Association of Suicidology annual meeting in Orlando 

It’s not uncommon for psychiatrists to lose a patient to suicide at some point during their training or careers. In fact, about half will, according to a study in 2004

John L. McIntosh, Ph.D. (photo by D. McNamara)

These “clinician survivors” should not isolate themselves. Instead, they should talk with colleagues, family, and friends, John L. McIntosh, Ph.D., of Indiana University, South Bend said. This helps physicians avoid some of the adverse effects: 

  • Fear of blame from the patient’s family
  • Feelings of guilt or responsibility
  • Doubts about professional competency

  Although few psychiatrists leave the field following a client suicide, many change the way they practice, Dr. McIntosh said. 

The American Association of Suicidology maintains a ListServe where psychiatrists can discuss their feelings about client suicide anonymously, Dr. Michael F. Myers of SUNY Downstate in Brooklyn said at the  meeting. 

Michael F. Myers, M.D. (photo by D. McNamara)

In addition, professional counseling can help after client suicide, as it helped Dr.  Myers. He had a roommate in medical school, a fellow medical student, who committed suicide. Later, three patients committed suicide during his training (most psychiatry residents experience this once or not at all during their training, he said, but he was seeing a high-risk population). At the time he felt “responsible, inadequate, confused” and feared his peers would judge him. 

He’s come a long way. “Losing patients to suicide is part of one’s job as a psychiatrist,” Dr. Myers said. “Admit the limitations of our ability to help. Our goal is to help people with mental suffering. All we can do is try our best.” 

–Damian McNamara

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Filed under IMNG, Psychiatry

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