Physician Suicide is Not New and Has Always been Tragic

David Mokotoff, MD
4 min readMay 4, 2020

Publicity surrounding an ER doctor’s death has focused on the worst aspects of the pandemic, but doesn’t examine pre-existing mental health hazards of the medical profession.

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Years ago during a difficult stretch of my career, near the end of a bad marriage, I became severely despondent. I contemplated suicide. I was fortunate however that through counseling, divorce, and treatment of undiagnosed depression, I got better. I cannot say the same for many of my colleagues. Physician suicide has been around as long as modern medicine. Various studies have shown it to be much higher in male doctors than in the general population, and even higher if you are a woman. How much higher depends upon the study you read. Last year, one review pegged it at 40% higher than the general population for men and 130% higher for a female physician.

Other studies showed that record number of physicians were on the brink of burnout and seriously depressed. And that was before the start of the recent viral pandemic. According to the above review, “Current literature suggests mental illness and burnout are epidemic in physicians and medical trainees. One study found 20% of medical residents met criteria for depression while 74% met criteria for burnout.” The causes are not a mystery. As healers, much is expected by others and ourselves. Patients often have unrealistic expectations about successful outcomes and any hint of a misstep may result in a malpractice suit. This constantly weighs in the mind of most doctors. Added to that are the long hours, many years of training, deferred income, loss of independence and decision-making from a decade-long evaporation of private medical practices, stresses of the electronic medical record, oversight and foot-dragging by insurance companies, and declining reimbursements. Couple that now with loss of income from suspension of all but emergency medical and surgical services and the Covid-19 intensive care disaster, and you have a perfect storm for physician mental health crisis.

The sad story of Dr. Lorna M. Breen, who was an emergency room doctor in endemic New York City, is just the tip of the iceberg. Much of the attention has focused on the pandemic overload of the healthcare system. There is no getting…

David Mokotoff, MD

David Mokotoff is a retired MD, passionate about health, science, medicine culture, and food,