The following is a copy of letter sent to Columbia University College of Physicians and Surgeons, Class of 1960. If you're from another class, or another school, or another health-related profession, please feel free to comment.Greetings from Bill Taylor, P&S '60
I'm writing to classmates with email addresses in the P&S Class of 1960 reunion book, to say hello, and to ask a question.
First, the hello. Barbara and I are happy in a CCRC in Bloomfield, CT, just outside of Hartford. It's one of those places with a continuum of care that enables residents to get the support they need as they age. We enjoy the variety of people and activities, and the chance to be occasionally of some support to those who need it. We're lucky in having children and grandchildren in the East and in Colorado. I've self-published some non-fiction and a couple of collections of fables, mainly as e-books, but haven't done any marketing.
I recommend to any of you who haven't gotten around to writing those memoirs or that other writing or graphics project you've been thinking about -- go ahead! I'm sure you know how easy it is to do an e-book these days. Your family and friends will appreciate what you have to say. Even if you "don't feel like it," at the moment, try going ahead anyway. See if you begin to get into it as you go along. I think we all have something to say, if we have a bit of encouragement. I was very impressed by the range of experiences reflected in the class notes in the Reunion book, and I'm sure you have a lot more to say.
My other reason for writing is related to having "something to say."
Along those lines, I think we've all had a lot of experiences that could be helpful to younger health professionals. Would you be interested in contributing ideas about the impact of stress on us at various stages of our lives, describing the ways we coped -- and are still coping?
As you know, some over-stressed health professionals get the point where they may feel at least transiently suicidal. Of those, some go on to end their lives.
The aim of this effort would be a book and a website that might persuade some stressed and even suicidal doctors, psychologists, nurses, and other health professionals to get help and reconsider their decision. I have a rough draft of the book, have recruited two local colleagues, and have just started a blog, as a possible channel over which health professionals in distress could seek support and provide encouragement to one another.
I have not been able to find any books specifically aimed at prevention of suicide by health professionals. (If anyone knows of a preventive site or book for health professionals, please send me the address. There are several sites where residents and others write about their frustrations.)
P&S and other med schools have placed a number of supportive resources on the Internet, as you may have discovered.
Goal of this project:
I think medical professionals of all disciplines would be interested in any advice you have for those students, residents, and graduates who are stressed and sometimes demoralized by all of those present-day challenges we know about.
For example, they might be interested in your thoughts about such a question as one (or more) of these:
Have you taken part as a mentor in programs that aimed in part at emotional support? If you were a teacher or supervisor, what helped those in the class or group to weather stress?
What advice would you give to anyone who wants to start such a support group?
What ways of coping have you found helpful?
Were there people or writers who you found inspiring when you felt stressed?
Did you have ways of unwinding?
Did your family play a supportive role, and if so, how?
Did relations with colleagues help or hinder your coping? Did you learn from some of them?
What in your experience at P&S was useful when it came to coping with stress later on? What was not so useful?
Do you have a personal physician or other professional who is supportive?
Were there times when you considered seeing a therapist, or did consult one?
Anyone you know who struggled with suicidal thoughts or made an attempt? Did the person succeed. If they survived, did their life change?
Responses to these questions, and any other thoughts would be most welcome. Is email a good
way to communicate? If you would prefer, you can also post on the website.
As you may be aware, there is often silence about suicide, especially when the medical community encounters such an act by one of its own. There are some research articles on suicidal doctors as a group, but only one or two books, to my knowledge: accounts by doctors of their own suicide attempts that "failed." (This relative scarcity of books by health professionals contrasts with the large number of posts and books about suicidal feelings and acts by the general public.)
A small number of family members have written articles about their experience after their doctor-spouse or their doctor-parent killed themselves.
There are also an increasing number of suicide prevention programs by medical societies and licensing bodies.
Nevertheless, some writers have emphasized the many barriers to a depressed, exhausted doctor's asking for help, and pointed out the need for more research and a focus on prevention.
I would see the book as a self-help guide aimed at supporting strengths, resilience, and coping skills.
Although I have not been suicidal myself, I have had enough stress during my years in medical school, and then in residency and in practice, to empathize with students, clinicians, faculty members, or hospital administrators who decide to end their suffering, once and for all.
I've also had a niece who killed herself in her early twenties (around 1995), and an uncle (not related to the niece) who suicided some time in the nineteen-fifties. There may well be a genetic risk in the family tree.
In mentioning these personal and family stressors, I guess I'm trying to send a message that we as a profession don't need to be quite as reluctant as we often are to discuss such matters.
What do you think?
Finally, I want to say that I think back to medical school with fondness for the collegiality, stimulating environment, and relatively sheltered existence (even with the academic competition), way back before we knew about managed care, liability insurance, hospital politics… But you have your own list of stressors, I'm sure.
Looking forward to hearing from you.
Bill Taylor P&S '60
The blog is http://stressedhealthprofessionals.blogspot.com/
My email is wrbftaylor1 at comcast.net (replace "at" with @ and remove spaces)
If you would like to share your message with others in the class of '60 please use the "Reply All" button. I will of course keep all replies confidential if they are sent just to me. You can also reply on the blog, in the "Comments" section.