This week I learned that physicians are the professional group with the highest rate of suicide. What is even more interesting is that it is estimated that female physicians are at an even higher risk than male physicians, even though men in the general population commit suicide at a much higher rate than females. The statistics that I have heard are that male physicians are 40% more likely to commit suicide on average, while female physicians are 130% more likely.
Is this really that surprising, though? Yes and no. It makes sense that physicians are at higher risk of committing suicide, as being a physician is a very stressful and time-consuming job. Many physicians suffer from burnout and depression, and physicians have the knowledge of and access to drugs, so the chances of successfully committing suicide goes up.
But why are female physicians at such an astronomically high risk? I think the answer is pretty clear. It is a lot harder for women to be physicians than men. I think it is harder to start and raise a family if you are a woman, and I think the current system of education and practice are not very flexible when it comes to women and the needs that women have.
I have always known that, going into the medical field, I would face a lot of opposition. It is a male-dominated field, and that has never really bothered me. I actually prefer working with men because there is a lot less drama. And, I have always known that being a physician will be at odds with my desire to have a family. But why do the two have to be so mutually exclusive?
I struggle as a female medical student, and I don’t even have a family yet. Not a day goes by that I don’t think about starting a family. I run over scenario after scenario of when and how it is going to work. There will never be a convenient time for me to have a baby, and I have come to terms with that. But I just wish that it was a little easier.
I don’t just have to worry about when I have time to physically have the baby, I have to worry about the nine months leading up to it. What if I get a lot of morning sickness? What if I am tired all the time? I am going to be on my feet all day seeing patients, so I can’t afford to be tired or nauseous.
And then after I have a baby, I will have to worry about breast-feeding. If I have a baby in the next few years, I will be breast-feeding while I do rotations or as an intern. That is really daunting. How am I supposed to ask my attending to allow me to take breaks to go pump? And where on earth am I supposed to do this?!
What is really interesting, is that my school actually has a nursing suite that they advertise to students – even prospective students. It is something that really made me look into coming to Kirksville. I was impressed to hear about it when I interviewed. Even though I, obviously, don’t use it, I feel like it is a big step in the right direction, and it makes me feel like I have support.
The sad thing is, I have actually heard some people criticize the nursing suite because it is only for women and there is no place for men. It is disheartening because it feels like even when something good like this happens, there are always people who aren’t supportive. And this is part of the problem.
Female physicians need more support – support from colleagues, support from patients, and especially from institutions, such as schools and hospitals. It is clear that they aren’t getting it, or the rates of male and female physician suicide wouldn’t be so different.
So anyways, I get it. I understand why the risk of suicide is so much higher in female physicians versus males. There are probably twenty-five men in my class who have kids and only one woman. I think women have a harder time balancing a career in medicine with having a family. And that is never going to change. But I would like to see some changes in how flexible the system is for women.