Approximately 25% of physicians across the United States reported having clinical depression according to a new Medscape survey.
Additionally, 9% reported having suicidal thoughts, and 1% admitted attempting suicide. The survey asked 9,100 physicians across 29 specialties in 2022, and while physicians are always trying to help patients with mental and physical health complications, they often struggle with mental health themselves. Around two-thirds of doctors reported having depressive symptoms in the survey.
In general, the study found that doctors are more vulnerable to developing suicidal thoughts compared to other professions.
Per the National Institute of Mental Health, major depression is one of the top mental disorders in the country, and around 21 million adults suffered from at least one major depressive episode in 2020. Depression is a severe mental illness, and many professionals are still recovering from their experiences during the pandemic, according to the assistant professor of psychiatry at the St. Louis Washington University School of Medicine Andrea Giedinghagen, M.D.
"The trauma from COVID-19 didn’t disappear just because the full ICUs did—and with a fractured healthcare system that virtually guarantees moral distress," continues Giedinghagen. "This is beyond individual solutions for individual problems. Systemic change is necessary.”
In 2022, physicians with reported suicidal contemplation diminished from 13% to 9%, per the 2021 report. In the general U.S., 4.9% of adults have contemplated suicide, and 0.5% attempted to take their own lives. Compared to the 2019 survey report, depression heightened by 8% while suicidal thoughts diminished by 5%.
Female physicians also had a 2% higher risk of considering suicide. In the U.S., females are generally two to three times more vulnerable to suicide attempts, although males are more vulnerable to suicide, per the CDC. Males account for 80% of suicides in the U.S.
Age also played a factor in the survey, as younger physicians between the age of 27 to 41 were more likely to have suicidal thoughts. This contrasts with the general U.S. population, where men over 45 are more vulnerable to suicidal risks.
Younger physicians reported that medical school or healthcare organizations had a portion of responsibility for suicidal thoughts, while 57% of those aged 42 to 56 years were uncertain about putting any blame on institutions or organizations.
"Admitting to having felt suicidal but not attempted suicide does speak to how stressed a certain cohort of today’s doctors are," says Michael Myers, M.D., professor of clinical psychiatry at SUNY Downstate Health Sciences University in the report.
The survey also notes that the top five specialties most vulnerable to suicide risks were otolaryngology, psychiatry, family medicine, anesthesiology, and OB-GYN. On the other hand, the least susceptible to suicide risks were orthopedics, nephrology, oncology, rheumatology, and pulmonary medicine.
"The fact that only a small percentage of these individuals went on to attempt suicide is a good sign that they perhaps shared with a trusted colleague, friends or family member or sought professional help," says Myers.
Inside physicians and their suicidal ideation
Regarding therapy, the report suggests physicians were 4% more likely to seek therapy compared to 2019 when only 34% reported doing so. In 2022, approximately half shared that they communicated with a close individual, such as family, friend, or colleague, and 5% reported having contacted a suicidal hotline.
However, approximately 40% reported having kept their suicidal feelings to themselves. Some reasons for not sharing their feelings included their career risks. Around 42% of physicians suffering from depression did not want to communicate with the medical board about their symptoms, a 110% increase from Medscape's survey in 2021.
“I was afraid of being put on a 5150 (involuntary detention), losing my job, having an impact on my future job search and credentialing," shares an anonymous physician in the survey.
Approximately 50% reported feeling they could handle suicidal thoughts without professional help.
"Some physicians noted that after noting that they had received professional mental help, some coworkers or administrators in their organization used that information against them in competitive instances," says the senior director at Medscape Business of Medicine, Leslie Kane. "There should be more oversight or change in attitude as to the use of such information."
In 2021, the British Medical Association suggested that approximately two-thirds of physicians deal with depression or anxiety. Physicians are vulnerable to burnout and stress, with hectic call schedules, immense working time, and intense physical labor with insufficient rest.
The national co-chair of the American Association of Suicidology’s Physician Suicide Awareness Committee Perry Lin, M.D., concludes: "Though as physicians we recognize suicidal ideal as an area of high concern and would take what a patient says very seriously, we are less likely to do this ourselves. There is a lot of stigma among help-seeking behavior."
- Medscape. Doctors' Burden: Medscape Physician Suicide Report 2023
- The British Medical Association. Nearly two thirds of doctors have anxiety or depression, BMA survey finds
- CDC. Suicide Data and Statistics
- The National Institute of Mental Health. Major Depression