Health Care Workers and Suicide Risk

Photo by Navy Chief Petty Officer Barry Riley
By Laura Faulconer, MSW, MPA and Jennifer Tucker, Ph.D.
September 8, 2020

Over the past six months, we’ve been encouraged and uplifted to see recognition and praise for health care workers fighting on the frontlines of the Coronavirus response, including military medical personnel supporting the effort around the world. News coverage highlights the heroic work and sacrifices of physicians, nurses, emergency care providers, physical therapists, nursing home caregivers, rehabilitation specialists, and other health care team members. And sadly, there have been a few high-profile stories about physician suicide.

Research shows that health care workers, especially female physicians, can have an increased risk for suicide. For behavioral health care workers, psychiatrists are generally at higher risk than other medical professionals. While the literature isn’t clear about whether the increased risk can be tied to specific aspects of health care jobs, it’s possible that some of the risk is due to the multiple barriers to care that health care workers face because of their professional roles. Barriers like fear of criticism or repercussions in the workplace, licensure and credentialing considerations, busy schedules, and malpractice insurance considerations can hamper an individual’s willingness to seek needed behavioral health care. 

During the COVID-19 pandemic, health care workers’ suicide risk may be increased by job-related stressors. For instance, workers may experience significant workload changes, fears of contracting the virus, difficulties procuring and/or wearing personal protective equipment, increased social isolation, and anxiety from frequently changing guidelines and the need to make difficult decisions for those in their care. Health care workers may also be traumatized by the situations they experience during the pandemic, such as sudden death.

Given the number and variety of potential stressors in the health care field, we urge all health care workers to not go it alone. Reach out when you need support. Use resources developed specifically for the pandemic. As much as possible, share your behavioral health care experiences with others so that we can continue to reduce the stigma of and barriers to care for all workers. For those working in behavioral health care, keep an eye on our non-behavioral health care colleagues. Engage in supportive, empathic dialogue and encourage self-care to maintain personal health and mission readiness.  Remember that we are all in this together – one team, one fight!

The following resources can help counteract the barriers to care inherent to the health care field as well as stressors related to the pandemic:

  • Psychological Health Resource Center – Call center that offers behavioral health information, connection to providers, and contacts for community resources
  • Provider Resilience app – Helps providers track and reduce burnout and compassion fatigue
  • Stress Continuum – Infographic to help health care workers identify the severity of their stress responses
  • COVID Coach app – Provides education, tools, and trackers for well-being
  • Virtual Hope Box app – Stores personalized contacts, mementos, and coping strategies that can be used to inspire hope in individuals who feel suicidal

If you or anyone you know is experiencing thoughts of suicide, please reach out for help immediately. 

National Suicide Prevention Lifeline: 1-800-273-TALK; www.suicidepreventionlifeline.org       Military Crisis Line: 1-800-273-8255; Press 1     

  • In Europe, call 00800 1273 8255 or DSN 118
  • In Korea, call 0808 555 1188 or DSN 118
  • In Afghanistan, call 00 1 800 273 8255 or DSN 111
  • Chat online at www.VeteransCrisisLine.net/chat
  • Send a text message to 838255

Ms. Faulconer is a contracted social worker subject matter expert on the evidence-based practice team at the Psychological Health Center of Excellence. She has a master of social work and a master of public administration.

Dr. Tucker is a research psychologist and suicide intervention subject matter expert at the Psychological Health Center of Excellence. She has master’s and doctoral degrees in clinical psychology and has worked with service members hospitalized for suicide risk.


The views expressed in Clinician's Corner blogs are solely those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the opinion of the Psychological Health Center of Excellence or Department of Defense.


Comments

  • Some who research this topic of clinician's stress refer to it as "compassion fatigue". In many specialties we confront many patients w/ collective morbidities that pose a clear and present danger to our patients. Many of these are serious recurrent and persistent. we take our responsibilities, obligations, and duties (role set) very seriously. Our stress is pronounced when we encounter managed care in regards to "medical necessity" and payment.

    Those decisions are made by accountants, MBA's, and actuaries. Our patients are being reduced to carbon, monetary, and digital units. This interferes w/ the therapeutic relationship.

    This is a very pertinent topic and i thank you for your efforts.
    Rich

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