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Physician Suicide Rates Set Off Alarms Around Health Care Industry

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Physicians are often thought of as superhuman, but they are actually far more likely than the general population to take their own lives.

Doctors can appear superhuman. They’ve made it through the gauntlet of medical school and residency. They make more money than most people. Statistically, they’re healthier.

But there’s a dark side to the profession that has been largely veiled — even from doctors themselves: They are far more likely to take their own lives.

Alarms go off so frequently in emergency rooms, doctors barely notice. And then a colleague is wheeled in on a gurney, clinging to life, and that alarm becomes a deafening wakeup call.

“It’s just freakin…it’s devastating,” says Kip Wenger, recalling a 33-year-old physician who died by suicide in 2015. “This is a young, healthy person that has everything in the world ahead of them.”

Wenger, a regional medical director for Knoxville-based TeamHealth, says she was a confident doctor who worked with him in emergency rooms all over Knoxville and died in one of those same ERs.

One of the unavoidable dangers of being a doctor is knowing exactly how to kill yourself and having easy access to the tools to do it. There are stories of anesthesiologists found in a hospital, hooked up to an IV of fentanyl. Without being too explicit, Wenger says his colleague died from multiple “stab wounds.” She also used numbing agents in order to die more painlessly.

“She wrapped herself in a blanket, and she got a Bible,” he says. “She wrote a note on the door to her best friend. ‘If you come here, don’t come in the door. Call Kip or call Peter and they’ll know what to do.’ And that’s how she checked out.”

This young doctor had confided in a few coworkers about recent relationship struggles, but nothing that affected her work. And then she became part of the grim statistics.

“She was very strong-willed, strong-minded, an independent, young, female physician,” says emergency doctor Betsy Hull, a close friend. “I don’t think any of us had any idea that she was struggling as much personally as she was for those several months.”

To read the full article or listen to the piece with Dr. Kip Wenger and Dr. Lynn Massingale, visit the Nashville Public Radio website.