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Suicide Rate and Prescription Drug Use On The Rise Among Medical Doctors

By Dr Ananya Mandal, MD

According to a review of Australian and international research released by Beyondblue this week, doctors use more prescription drugs and have a higher rate of suicide than the general population. General Practitioner Naomi Harris says doctors are less inclined to seek help for their own mental illness, resulting in some disturbing trends and she is urging doctors to come out for help being a member of an advisory committee formed to deal with the problem.

Personal experience

Doctors and academics including Harris met at Richmond where she revealed that she was diagnosed with depression as a 20-year-old medical student in 2000 and within weeks she deteriorated into a “catatonic state”. She said, “I was admitted to a private psychiatric hospital and didn’t get out of bed for six weeks… I don’t remember those six weeks, I remember my mum by my bedside but that’s all.” She then had to undergo various treatments, including 21 cycles of electroconvulsive therapy, over three months. She went on to return to university in 2001 and complete her degree in medicine and now works as a GP in inner-city Melbourne.

She explained that she has now learned to recognize the warning signs of a lowered mood and she said doctors often “recognize symptoms in patients but refuse to recognize them in ourselves”. She said that needed to change, because “we have not only our lives, but our patients’ lives to take care of.”


Beyondblue review

In the beyondblue review, 86 studies were looked into. This found that medical students and doctors were less likely to seek help for depression than the general population. Much of it came from the stigma, fear for career goals and doubts that would be raised by colleagues and superiors on their professional integrity and capabilities. As a result more doctors, especially those working in emergency medicine and psychiatry use prescription drugs. The suicide risk is also staggering – male doctors had a 26 per cent higher risk, and female doctors a 146 per cent higher risk.

The review was headed by former president of the Australian Medical Association Dr Mukesh Haikerwal. “The key concern is that the medical profession doesn’t seek help for various and many reasons and it’s very important that they do. We see a greater rate of suicide in the medical profession, much more amongst women in the profession, and we don’t need to get to that stage, we need to get help early and treat it”, Dr Haikerwal said.

According to research advisor Professor David Clarke further studies involving doctors in rural and rest of Australia are necessary to look at the trends here. This should be followed up with education and awareness campaigns, and creation of an online self-help and treatment program targeted specifically at doctors. According to Beyondblue chairman Jeff Kennett doctors should “heed their own advice” and seek help before its too late. Mr Kennett said, “There’s not much point putting so much pressure on our doctors that we expect them to be there 24/7 if the result of that is they become ill, that they become depressed, that their professional level of service drops…We need to have a fit medical profession and we’re a long way from doing that.”



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