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Medical News & Perspectives
May 20, 2020

Prioritizing Physician Mental Health as COVID-19 Marches On

JAMA. 2020;323(22):2235-2236. doi:10.1001/jama.2020.5205

In the spring of 2013, Eileen Barrett, MD, MPH, lost a colleague to suicide. The two worked at the Indian Health Service’s Gallup Indian Medical Center in New Mexico, where Barrett was the deputy chief of medicine. Even before the tragic event, she saw workers struggle under administrative burdens and hold themselves personally responsible for problems outside of their control.

With her coworker’s death it became painfully clear that clinician wellness had to become a higher priority. “It made me really think that we needed to do more for everybody on the health care team,” Barrett, now an associate professor of medicine and an academic hospitalist at the University of New Mexico in Albuquerque, said in a recent interview with JAMA.

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    1 Comment for this article
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    Psychologically Immunize Yourself
    Steven Reid, MD, FAANS | Doctor Lifeline, Incorporated
    As the founder and president of Doctor Lifeline, a nonprofit dedicated to preventing physician suicides, I would like to offer a suggestion. First, however, some background. Physicians take their own lives at a rate at least twice that of the general population, and at a rate higher than almost any other profession. Suicide is the second most common cause of death for young doctors, exceeded only by accidents.

    In "normal" times, doctor suicides are a serious problem. In the current surreal times colored by the Covid-19 epidemic, many additional stressors fall upon doctors. These
    include crippling financial damage, especially for surgical specialists, "front line" PTSD, moral ambiguity for older physicians regarding personal and familial risks based on patient exposure, frustrations from lack of evidence based guidelines, delayed tests, inadequate PPE, and many others.

    My suggestion here is to psychologically immunize yourself. By this, I mean, take 10 or 20 minutes to write a letter to your future self while you are still psychologically healthy. Remind yourself why you chose your career and how it rewards you. Remember how important you are to your family. Tell yourself what you would tell a stressed, depressed colleague to help her cope. Rekindle her idealism and enthusiasm. Include contact information for trusted friends and suicide prevention hotlines. Keep this letter on you like a magic talisman. Read it when you feel overwhelmed. Your actions today could save your life in the future.
    CONFLICT OF INTEREST: President of Doctor Lifeline, Incorporated, a 501(c)3 nonprofit working to prevent doctor suicides.
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