I ask because I have decided that I can’t be sure any more… One of the happiest people I know (or at least he seemed happy, and admittedly, I didn’t really know him) just committed suicide. Robin Williams. Famed actor, quirky comedian, man who could make anyone laugh. He portrayed our profession admirably in Patch Adams and Awakenings, not to mention playing the consummate educator in Dead Poets Society and Good Will Hunting. He was successful, presumably rich, loved by many… So what happened?
As it turns out, all of the money, fame, and outward appearances of social integration and contentment may have been a façade. Sometimes it takes an event like this to shake you up a bit and make you wonder about the people around you… How happy are they? As physicians, we have the dubious distinction of being the second leading profession to commit suicide (yup, even more than lawyers and dentists!)… And ladies, as female physicians, we’re 400% more likely than women in other professions to commit suicide.
So what’s up with that? You would think we work in a noble profession… We do wonderful work – treating patients who are incredibly grateful, doing research that pushes the boundaries of current knowledge. A recent KevinMD blog pointed out the pressures of being a physician, particularly in the modern era of turn style medicine, medico-legal challenges, and declining reimbursements. Our students have massive debt loads, our residents work insane hours, and at the end of the day, we lead stress-filled lives and face physical and emotional burnout.
Depressing, isn’t it? Some may say that’s what we signed up for when we entered this profession – no wonder our suicide rates are so high. Before we accept this as a fait accompli, I would argue that there are a few things we can do about that. First, we as a profession, can actually look out for each other. Medicine does not need to be a self-flagellating field; we can actually nurture each other and ensure that we are taking care of ourselves. Second, we can take a moment to be grateful for everything we have – too often I think we take for granted the blessing of our own good health, our friends and family, and the joy of being part of one of the most amazing professions on earth. Third, we can choose to be happy. There will always be hardships, there will always be politics, and there will always be people who just seem to bring a dark cloud to every issue…. But whether or not we internalize such vibes and let them stew in a furor of discontent, or whether we face them head on, taking from these experiences that which is constructive, and leaving aside the negativity – that is a choice we make. Choose to be happy.
We lost a great entertainer today in Robin Williams; we lose 300-400 great physicians every year in the US to suicide. What a waste of talent… We’ve got to stop the bleed. If you're unhappy, talk to someone and get help. If you are happy, do what you can to make those around you happy too. Life is too short as it is to be shortened even further.