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America's doctors kill themselves at unprecedented rates

US doctors

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(NaturalNews) According to a 2005 article in the medical journal JAMA, male doctors are 70 percent more likely to kill themselves than other male professionals. Female doctors are an astonishing 250 to 400 percent more likely to take their lives than their non-doctor counterparts.

Why do U.S. doctors kill themselves at such an astonishingly high rate? While no one cause is obviously to blame, concerned observers are increasingly pointing the finger at a medical system that, from day one, fails to support or actively undermines students and doctors who may be struggling with mental illness.

Show no weakness

According to Pamela Wible, a Eugene, Oregon, family practitioner who researches and writes about the phenomenon of doctor suicide, an estimated 400 U.S. doctors kill themselves each year. That's approximately the size of the average graduating medical school class.

If all of those doctors were general practitioners with an average caseload of 2,300 patients, that would mean a million people's doctors killing themselves each year.

And according to Wible, the true number of doctor suicides is probably much higher. That's because, culturally, doctors tend to cover up suicides by their colleagues, even going so far as to pressure coroners to classify clear suicides as "unplanned" deaths instead.

"Accidental overdoses?" Wible said. "You've got to be kidding me. Doctors calculate doses for a living."

In addition to attempting suicide more often, doctors are also more likely to be successful: Unlike lay people, doctors have expert knowledge of anatomy and easy access to lethal drugs.

But why are U.S. doctors killing themselves? Among the theories suggested are: growing pressures of modern medical practice (including "assembly-line medicine," conflict with insurance companies, fear of malpractice, and a baffling and ever-changing regulatory framework and body of medical-scientific knowledge), financial pressures exacerbated by debt in the hundreds of thousands of dollars, and a medical culture that encourages doctors to suppress their emotions and hide their troubles.

"In general, we're in a profession that will shun you if you show weakness or suffering in any way," Wible said.

Wible notes that medical school professors regularly teach students to set aside their emotions in order to be better doctors, even if they are dealing with tragic situations.

Studies have shown that medical students struggling with mental health problems rarely feel able to ask for help. According to one study, only 22 percent of depressed medical students had sought therapy. Only 42 percent of those with suicidal thoughts got any treatment.

Instead of therapy, many doctors seem to turn to drugs and alcohol. While the rate of substance abuse is about 9 percent among the general U.S. population, among doctors it may be as high as 15 percent.

In one article, Wible wrote of a medical school professor who told his entire class that, if they ever killed themselves, they should be sure to do it properly -- and then proceeded to spell out the exact techniques they should use.

Afraid to ask for help

To make matters worse, doctors who admit to having mental health or substance abuse problems are regularly required to participate in a physicians health program (PHP), a type of program designed in the 1970s. PHPs regularly require doctors -- even those without substance problems -- to attend treatment programs based on the 12-step program of Alcoholics Anonymous, one of the least effective addiction-treatment methodologies known.

This is standard policy by many state medical boards, even for doctors who are already receiving treatment. This heavy-handed, one-size-fits all approach actually discourages many doctors from seeking help, critics charge.

"Acknowledging a history of mental health or substance abuse treatment triggers a more in-depth inquiry by the medical board," wrote psychiatrist Robert Bright of the Mayo Clinic in Scottsdale, Arizona. "The lack of distinction between diagnosis and impairment further stigmatizes physicians who seek care and impedes treatment."

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