‘Primum non nocere’ is Latin for “First, to do no harm.” Commonly mistaken as appearing in the Hippocratic Oath, ‘Primum non nocere’ is one of the basic principles of medical ethics for physicians, stating that in any circumstance or procedure, the well-being of the patient comes first, according to Segen’s Medical Dictionary.
With these words, however, the biggest irony lies in the fact that suicide rates of physicians are rising at an overwhelming pace. The Journal of the American Medical Association found that suicide, the second leading cause of death in the 24-34 age range, causes approximately 28% of residents to experience a major depressive episode during their training. Research found that male physicians were 1.4 times more likely to kill themselves than the general public, while female physicians were 2.3 times as more likely. Additionally, 23% of interns were reported to have had suicidal thoughts, according to the American Foundation for Suicide Prevention.
“I realize that even after brutal years of medical school and tough competition, there is also a lot of inner turmoil. Physicians are responsible for lives and it’s inevitable that people make mistakes when they may be responsible for a death in their career.”
Despite the glamorized portrayal of the medical profession in modern-day media, from TV dramas like “Grey’s Anatomy” to talk shows like “The Doctors,” many physicians—especially those currently in training—face numerous risks that are inherent to practicing medicine. Directed by Robyn Symon, the new documentary ‘Do No Harm’ addresses three major reasons as to why the suicide rate among physicians has been growing in recent years. Sleep deprivation, the fear of making a medical mistake, and the feeling of having no one to ask for help, are highlighted as the leading causes of the drastically high suicide rates.
‘Do No Harm’ focuses on the lives of physicians who suffer with suicidal thoughts, shedding light on the difficulty of pursuing this career and the reality of having to maintain the position. Since its release in January of 2018, the documentary has inspired many with its message regarding mental health.
The documentary focuses mainly on the life of Kevin Dietl, an aspiring medical student who fell into depression, causing him to take his life near the end of his fourth year of receiving his education at the A.T. Kirksville College of Osteopathic Medicine. It then shifts focus to Dietl’s parents who spoke out about the issue of mental health and the need for change in training and education in the medical field. The storyline also directs attention to the Mechams, specifically Hawkins Mecham, a fourth-year medical student who attempted suicide and survived.
Seeing as many students strive for occupations within the medical field, ranging from doctors to surgeons and more, the importance of being informed about the mental health risks in these professions is not to be taken lightly. When asked about her reaction to these statistics and how this changes her perception of this career, Donia Ballan ’19 replied, “To be completely honest, I’m not surprised because the medical field takes a certain personality type to thrive in. You have to be someone who can withstand long hours of treating people who may not always be saved.”
Nevertheless, some students point out that it wasn’t the statistics that changed their perspective of attending medical school but rather the awareness the documentary spread for the issue. “I realize that even after brutal years of medical school and tough competition, there is also a lot of inner turmoil. Physicians are responsible for lives and it’s inevitable that people make mistakes when they may be responsible for a death in their career.” Cassie Tian ’19 adds.
“When students at our school are exposed to information like this, I believe they are able to understand the risks involved with certain careers. Therefore, they will not only consider a field simply because of the reputation but reevaluate what they can handle, both academically and emotionally,” Liyuan Wang ’19 states. “Indeed, there are possible negative consequences associated with this profession. The world’s continuous need of physicians suggests that the profession will not disappear. However, the number of students who are willing to challenge themselves may reduce in number, especially because one possible implication is increased risk of suicide.”
The idealized view that people have on the medical field pressurizes physicians to be perfect all the time. Much of this issue stems from the fact that a code of silence is embedded within the medical community. “We need to make it easier for medical students to reach out for help. I think that students should be allowed to take time off from medical school to get treatment. It’s not something to be ashamed of, and we must not treat depression and suicide thoughts as a taboo, because that only prevents those in need from reaching out,” said Ballan ’19. The emotional health of our physicians is often overlooked, resulting in insufficient attention from the public. Resources and support, not only from the medical community, but in our society, are needed to help the ones who help us.