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Prioritizing Support for Clinicians: National Physician Suicide Awareness Day and Beyond

By Stefanie Simmons, MD, FACEP, VP of Patient and Clinician Experience

National Physician Suicide Awareness Day is observed on Sept. 17, but it needs to be discussed all 365 days. Physicians have one of the highest rates of death by suicide, and more than half of clinicians know a colleague that has considered, attempted or died by suicide. There have been increased efforts nationally to prioritize wellness, which is a start. As a society, we must do more.

Physicians and advanced practice providers have difficult jobs, and it’s becoming even more challenging for them. They are experiencing practice environments like they never have before — clinician and nursing shortages, growing administrative burdens, inequities between patient popu lations and a healthcare landscape that is difficult to navigate.

Everyone plays a role in supporting clinicians. Just as they are there for us in our greatest time of need, we must be there for them. There are many ways that individuals and organizations can help. Often, the first step is checking in with teammates and learning how to support them.

Asking Colleagues How They Are Doing

The smallest gestures can go a long way. Practice meaningful and frequent check-ins with teammates to see how they are doing and let them know you are there to support them. Keep in mind the following tips, which you can reference to help care for anyone, including a colleague, friend, family member or community member.

  • Recognize Key Signs. With the stigma around mental health in our country and the healthcare industry, clinicians may be less open to discussing their challenges and less likely to show signs. In general, look for changes in relationships, emotions and actions. See additional signs here.
  • Protect Privacy. When talking to someone, it’s important to respect their privacy. Find a quiet, comfortable place without many distractions.
  • Have Empathy. Approach the conversation with understanding and patience. The same compassionate approach we use when talking to patients applies to peers. Try using supportive language, such as, "It's been really hard lately; how are you holding up? No, really?"
  • Listen Intently. Often, it’s more important to listen instead of talk. Focus on letting peers use this time to express their thoughts and concerns. Most of the time, you don't need to problem solve immediately, but you should ask what they are doing for support.
  • Follow Up. Continue to check in with them.
  • Remember Important Resources. If you believe someone is suicidal or in crisis, connect them to mental health resources and offer to seek help on their behalf if they need it.
    • Physician Support Line – Physicians and American medical students can access free, confidential peer support by calling 888.409.0141 from 8 a.m. to 1 a.m. ET every day.
    • The National Suicide Prevention Lifeline – Anyone can access 24/7 help by calling or texting 988 or using the live chat.
    • Envision Support Envision clinicians and clinical support teammates can also access resources internally, including free, confidential therapy.

Engagement from individuals, policymakers and healthcare organizations can make a difference. I’m proud of the steps our medical group has taken throughout the years and our ongoing efforts to prevent suicide and advocate for clinicians so they can practice in a supportive environment and thrive.

Our actions include, but are not limited to, building a comprehensive professional well-being program and a culture focused on wellness as well as working to remove structural barriers. We have supported legislative initiatives like the Dr. Lorna Breen Health Care Provider Protection Act, which aims to reduce and prevent suicide, burnout, and mental and behavioral health conditions among healthcare professionals. We also support the Dr. Lorna Breen Heroes’ Foundation, which is in honor of emergency physician Dr. Breen who died by suicide at the height of COVID-19 in 2020.

We all need to join this fight and support one another as we continue to identify best practices and work to improve the nation’s healthcare system, reduce stigma and help the people who care for us.