Two weeks ago, two medical residents, in their second month of residency training in different programs, jumped to their deaths in separate incidents in New York City. I did not know them, and cannot presume to speak for them or their circumstances. But I imagine that they had celebrated their medical school graduation this spring just as my friends and I did. I imagine they began their residencies with the same enthusiasm for healing as we did. And I imagine that they experienced fatigue, emotional exhaustion and crippling self-doubt at the beginning of those residencies — I know I did.
The statistics on physician suicide are frightening: Physicians are more than twice as likely to kill themselves as nonphysicians (and female physicians three times more likely than their male counterparts). Some 400 doctors commit suicide every year. Young physicians at the beginning of their training are particularly vulnerable: In a recent study, 9.4 percent of fourth-year medical students and interns — as first-year residents are called — reported having suicidal thoughts in the previous two weeks.
Hospitals and residency programs recognize the toll residency takes on the mental stability and physical health of new doctors. In 2003, work hours were capped at 80 hours a week for all residency training programs. Residents are provided confidential counseling services to help cope with stress. My residency program offers writing workshops and monthly reflection rounds. We have a wellness committee that organizes social events such as bonfires on the beach and visits from therapy dogs.
But despite these efforts, people still fall through the cracks. While acute stress, social isolation, pre-existing mental illness and substance abuse may be obvious factors to consider, we must also ask if there are aspects of medical culture that might push troubled residents beyond their reserves of emotional resilience.