Physicians Are Talking: 'Happy Doctors' and Suicide

Keith L. Martin


October 22, 2018


The increased spotlight on physician burnout has also shone a light on the issue of doctors committing suicide. With the highest suicide rate of any profession, one could assume that physicians also comprise a large majority of professionals seeking mental health counseling.

However, a recent article by Dr Pamela Wible, republished on Medscape, highlighted two major byproducts of physicians seeking that assistance: shame and guilt. As detailed in that article, Dr Benjamin Shaffer was ashamed of needing time away from work to deal with his anxiety disorder and also feared losing his patients, practice, and much more if others found out about his private struggle. He ultimately committed suicide.

Physicians often fear that their receiving mental health care will result in that information making its way to state medical boards or supervisors. The result, as Wible notes, is physicians driving out of town, paying in cash, and using false names in paper charts to hide their much-needed treatment.

The article inspired hundreds of comments, mainly addressing the factors of shame and guilt that physicians face when seeking help, as well as the treatment that Shaffer received before his suicide.

The Added Burden of Shame and Guilt

Many sympathized with Shaffer, noting the added struggle of shame and guilt while trying to address his ongoing anxiety.

One healthcare professional said:

To experience such shame and guilt of having mental illness affect you on top of your symptoms is a horrible thing to go through alone. Possibly not on point, but the boards are unforgiving and I can see how the stress of potential discipline could put someone over the edge.

Others pointed to the long-standing belief that those in healthcare, whether physicians, nurses, or other roles, are immune to personal issues outside of their clinical work. One nurse practitioner said:

I am so saddened by the fact that this fine physician suffered, and was too afraid, and ashamed to say something. ...This should not have happened, and what a loss to his family. Something must be done in our industry to provide a safe haven for healthcare professionals to go to for help, without fear of [reprisal].

Another nurse practitioner urged her peers to take the time needed to take care of themselves.

Being replaceable is a good thing. A good thing. Someone will cover for you. We've all done it, and when we need it we should accept the help. Take a day, a week, a month, a year and get better.


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