Guest Post from Dr. Pamela Wible

What I’ve learned from saving physicians from suicide

 | PHYSICIAN | MAY 27, 2013

A psychiatrist in Seattle had picked out the bridge. At 3am he would swerve across his lane and plunge into the water. Everyone would assume he fell asleep.

A surgeon in Oregon was lying on the floor of her office with a scalpel. Nobody would find her until it was too late.

An internal medicine resident in Atlanta heard an anesthesiologist joking about the lethal dose of sodium thiopental. Alone in the call room, she would overdose that night.

Three planned suicides. All three physicians survived. Why? physician-suicide

While preparing to overdose, the internist was interrupted by an endocrinologist calling to check on her. Before grabbing her scalpel, the surgeon called several physicians pleading for help—I responded immediately. Two days before he was to drive off the bridge, the psychiatrist spotted my ad for a physician retreat. He called me begging to attend.

One week later, I’m hiking through the Oregon Cascades. The scent of cedar envelops me as I approach the lodge where I’m welcoming physicians who have arrived from all over the United States and Canada, all of us on a pilgrimage for answers.

Tonight we begin a retreat for doctors who yearn to love medicine again. Studies confirm most doctors are overworked, exhausted, or depressed. The tragedy: few seek help.

I ask the group, “How many physicians have lost a colleague to suicide?” All hands are raised. “How many have considered suicide?” Except for one woman, all hands remain up—including mine.

“Physicians have the highest suicide rate of any profession,” I explain. “In the United States we lose over 400 physicians per year to suicide. That’s the equivalent of an entire medical school. Even that’s an underestimate because many physician suicides are incorrectly identified as accidents.”

I tell them, “Both men I dated in med school are dead. Brilliant physicians. Loved by their families and patients. Both died young—by ‘accidental overdose.’ Really? How many physicians accidentally overdose?”

The room is quiet.

It’s easier to say accident than suicide. Doctors can say gonorrhea and carcinoma. Why not suicide? Maybe we can’t face our own wounds.

“I’m a family doc in Eugene, Oregon, where we’ve lost three physicians in eighteen months to suicide. I was suicidal once. Assembly-line medicine was killing me. Too many patients and not enough time sets us up for failure. Rather than kill myself, I invited my patients to help me design an ‘ideal clinic.’ It is possible to love medicine again.”

The Canadian doctor to my right wipes her eyes. “I’m feeling so discouraged. I want to give up and work at Starbucks. My head is exploding from banging it against the system.”

A bright-eyed, blonde woman reveals, “I just took a leave of absence from med school because it was ‘killing my soul.’ Three classmates attempted suicide.”

A newlywed couple join in. “I’m a nurse. My husband is an internist. He’s suffering, but I don’t know how to help him. Doctors don’t seek psychiatric care because mental illness is reportable to the medical board. He fears he’ll lose his license.” Her husband adds, “I was suicidal three months ago. On the edge. My wife and I are hoping to find answers here.”

Here, physicians, nurses, and medical students share their wounds and their wisdom—in community. We share new practice models, communication techniques, and strategies to care for ourselves—so we can care for our patients.

In four days, I witness more healing than in four years of med school. Once strangers, we’ve become family. Parting ways, the psychiatrist from Seattle thanks me again.

I didn’t know these doctors, but I know their despair. By speaking about my own pain, I validated their pain. By being vulnerable, I gave them the strength to be vulnerable too.

But mostly we healed each other by not being afraid to say the word suicide out loud.

Pamela Wible pioneered the community-designed ideal medical clinic and blogs at Ideal Medical Care. She is the author of Pet Goats and Pap Smears.


Aware of the hurting

Did you scroll down and notice my SocialVibe badge for To Write Love on Her Arms? I discovered SocialVibe and TWLOHA by accident a few days ago.  My badge is not very useful right now because there are no activities for you to click on. But I went to TWLOHA’s website and joined the StreetTeam on There’s a good amount of news and activities on those two sites.

TWLOHA started in 2006 by a young man after reaching out to a friend in need.  TWLOHA is a non-profit movement dedicated to presenting hope and finding help for people struggling with depression, addiction, self-injury and suicide.  When you go to the website, check out the main page, vision and the story.  It will all start to make sense.  It was very moving for me.

My goal at this point in my life is to be hyper aware of the hurting people around me and then look for ways, large or small to assist them. One of the best ways, I believe, is to pray for them. Praying for someone takes my mind off myself.  I make myself pray for a person as soon as I recognize the need, or as soon as they ask me to.  Even more fun is just asking the person can I pray with them right there.

I call my husband a “do gooder.”  He’s the guy you ask to jump your car, take you to the airport or help you move.  And he does it all cheerfully.  I know I can go to him with any request to help someone physically or financially and he’ll do his best to make it happen. So he is a good partner to be in the blessing business with.

If you are struggling with depression, addiction, self-injury or suicide, my prayer for you is that you know that you really are valuable. (I need someone to read this blog!)  Seriously, get help. There really are caring people all around you.  If you suspect you know someone who is struggling with depression, addiction, self-injury or suicide, let them know you care and are watching.  Help them get help.

If you read TWLOHA’s story on the situation that drew the founder into making a commitment to the movement, you’ll be reminded that helping is not neat, quick, easy or fun. I’m very thankful for those friends that loved on me through the years. I was and can still be somewhat unpredictable, distant and annoying, but now I just blame it on being a temperamental artist.

to write love on her arms

to write love on her arms (Photo credit: ashley rose,)