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What happens when your doctor commits suicide?

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By Michael F Myers, MD

It is well known that many people are impacted when individuals kill themselves: family members, friends, coworkers, acquaintances, neighbors, to name a few. But when a doctor kills herself or kills himself, what about their patients? How do they react? Is there anything we should be watching for?

When researching my latest book, Why Physicians Die By Suicide: Lessons Learned From Their Families and Others Who Cared, I decided to interview a few patients who had lost their doctor. What follows are excerpts from an interview that I had with one man:

“When my internist killed himself I was shocked and very sad, but strangely not surprised. He had been my doctor for decades, but I noticed over the past couple of years that he seemed stressed. He was getting forgetful and seemed kind of distant or lost in thought when I saw him. He was still friendly and kind but a bit weary.

I remember thinking that he’s getting up there in years and, like all of us of a certain age, I thought he might be retiring soon. I almost brought it up because he had a younger associate whom I had seen from a distance, and I thought I’d be comfortable with him if Dr. Boxer did retire. Then I read in the newspaper obituary section that his wife had died. I felt kind of sad for him, and I could identify since I lost my wife about ten years ago and know how hard that is.

Then a couple of months later I read another article that featured his son, a junior researcher at our local college who had just accepted a big promotion at an Ivy League university across the country. When I was in to see him for a checkup I almost brought these things up, but I didn’t think it was my place. I’m so sorry I didn’t.

I didn’t know this would be my last visit and I’d never see him again. Kind of weird in a way, but I’m wondering whether if I had kind of commiserated with him a bit, maybe he wouldn’t have done what he did. But who am I? Just a patient, not a friend. But I just feel sad. You doctors give so much to your patients. Do you really take care of yourselves? And do you watch out for each other?”

In addition to the sense of sadness that this man felt when his doctor died, there is regret and feelings of “if only” sentiments that are very common in survivors of suicide loss. It is particularly confusing for patients because many do not know if it’s acceptable to reach out to their doctor and without probing, exhort them to look after themselves.

Losing one’s physician to suicide is particularly tough when that person has been under the doctor’s care for a long time and there is a strong doctor-patient relationship. It is not unusual for these kinds of patients to have many feelings, often powerful and very raw – shock and disbelief, heartache and sorrow, feelings of anger and abandonment, and sometimes guilt because they wonder if they were difficult or burdensome as a patient and might have contributed to their doctor’s weariness and despair. And most feel anxious about the “new” doctor stepping in and taking over their care, comparing him/her to the idealized physician whom they’ve lost. Not easy at all for the bereaved patient. And not easy for the doctor either.

One of the recommendations I make toward the end of the book is that suicide prevention is everyone’s business. We all have a role to play in keeping people from killing themselves, including our doctors. A smile, a thank you and a few kind words of encouragement can go a long ways.

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Michael F. Myers, MD is a Professor of Clinical Psychiatry at SUNY Downstate Medical Center in Brooklyn, NY. 

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