May 27, 2022

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If you or someone you know is considering suicide, call the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 1-800-273-TALK (8255).

When oculoplastic surgeon Zinaria Williams, MD, began medical school, she made a promise to herself to care for underserved communities. Her parents — both university educators — had instilled within her at a young age a love for learning.

Being a doctor became an important part of who she was early in her life. What she didn’t know when walking through the doors of medical school was that six to nine of her peers would eventually die by suicide (every year in the U.S., it’s estimated that 300 to 400 physicians die by suicide).

Nor did she know that her personal safety – both psychological and physical – would be at risk when she walked through the doors of her workplace.

Williams cared for some of Boston’s most difficult patients during her medical training, and she continues to do the same today in New York City. While never physically assaulted, she said she was regularly manipulated and sometimes physically threatened by incarcerated and psychiatric patients.

That, coupled with extreme sleep deprivation and the responsibilities of being a new resident with little support from mentors who verbally abused house staff, proved to be toxic. She felt anger and resentment brewing within, and began to detach from patient care.

“I knew something wasn’t right,” she said, reflecting back on her training. “My identity was so attached to being a doctor. I had all these student loans and didn’t see any way out. I also couldn’t connect with patients the way I wanted to, and thought it was anger management I needed. It’s shameful even admitting it, but feeling it? I just didn’t want to be this way.”

While driving home from the hospital one evening over the Longfellow bridge crossing the Charles River, Williams found herself wondering if it was high enough.

“I was having suicidal ideation, and sought help through the Employee Assistance Program. With the help of a therapist, I began to see it wasn’t me. It was the environment. I think this is how I was able to get through training, though it was only one level of it.”

Many residents and physicians do not seek help when feeling depressed, burned out, or detached from the self that first sought to heal others because of the stigma associated with asking for help as a medical professional. But recognizing and treating these issues, especially as healthcare workers continue to fight yet another COVID-19 surge, is becoming even more necessary.

Fighting for Healthcare Worker Mental Health

Before Lorna Breen, MD, a New York City emergency medicine physician, died by suicide in April 2020, she was by all accounts a happy person with a wide circle of friends and family. But at the time she was struggling most, she feared she was going to lose her license to practice medicine because she sought mental health assistance after treating COVID-19 patients in the first wave,

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