Stories focus on suicides of doctors, soldiers

New York Times columnist Pauline Chen, M.D., serves up a reminder that suicide prevention isn’t just a matter of access to counseling and resources, in the form of a story about high physician suicide rates. If there’s any sector of the population that should be able to recognize that they are suffering from mental illness, and that the condition is treatable, it should be doctors, Chen writes. Yet still they kill themselves at a rate above the American average.

For several decades now, studies have consistently shown that physicians have higher rates of suicide than the general population — 40 percent higher for male doctors and a staggering 130 percent higher for female doctors. While research has traced the beginning of this tragic difference to the years spent in medical school, the contributing factors remain murky. Students enter medical school with mental health profiles similar to those of their peers but end up experiencing depression, burnout and other mental illnesses at higher rates. Despite better access to health care, they are more likely to cope by resorting to dysfunctional behaviors like excessive drinking and are less likely to receive the right care or even recognize that they need some kind of intervention.

Chen mentions two recent studies published in the Journal of the American Medical Association that shed more light on the issue, one showing that in medical school depression and burnout are separate entities, and the other showing that depressed students believe others view them as incompetent. In the end, she calls for further long-term research, but does not take the next logical step and investigate comparative research and statistics. Is it just American medical students who are depressed? Do countries with low-cost, low-pressure med schools produce doctors with better mental health? There’s a lot of room for investigation.

Suicides in another high-access group

Chen’s New York Times colleague, James McKinley, writes that as many as 20 soldiers connected with the Army base at Ft. Hood have killed themselves this year, despite the Army’s suicide prevention efforts.

The spate of suicides in Texas reflects a chilling reality: nearly 20 months after the Army began strengthening its suicide prevention program and working to remove the stigma attached to seeking psychological counseling, the suicide rate among active service members remains high and shows little sign of improvement. Through August, at least 125 active members of the Army had ended their own lives, exceeding the morbid pace of last year, when there were a record 162 suicides.

As of July, the Army requires all returning soldiers to be evaluated by a mental health specialist, though veteran advocates still point to a shortage of psychiatrists and an emphasis on treatment through medication rather than through therapy. The system is taxed by record numbers of soldiers seeking help for psychological problems, and mental health was the leading reason for hospitalization in the Army last year, McKinley writes.

Each suicide is unique, McKinley writes, and it’s hard to find patterns.

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