The Heritage College has always stressed the importance of medical students and physicians being mindful of their own personal wellness. In a striking display of this commitment, all three campuses hosted a National Day of Solidarity to Prevent Physician Suicide last month, with about 140 people – at least 40 at each site – taking part in a candlelight vigil Aug. 20.
Speakers from the Heritage College and medical education partners OhioHealth and Cleveland Clinic frankly addressed mental health issues facing physicians and medical students, suggested ways to help colleagues facing depression or other emotional issues, and discussed what resources are available at the college for those who need help.
Heritage College Executive Dean Kenneth Johnson, D.O., who was among the speakers at the Athens campus event, said afterward that the Day of Solidarity was an encouraging sign.
“To see our faculty and students spontaneously organize to address this important issue, and talk about it openly and honestly, is to me a great example of osteopathic physicians having the capacity and courage to heal themselves and each other,” Johnson said.
Of all occupations and professions, doctors have one of the highest rates of suicide, with some experts estimating that 300 to 400 physicians take their own lives every year. Suicide rates are also high among medical students and residents.
“As healers, we must first and foremost care for ourselves and support one another. This is a step in that direction,” said Paige Gutheil Henderson, D.O. (’02), assistant professor of primary care, who organized the solidarity event at the Heritage College, Dublin. “We are on the front lines of many challenging times and have the opportunity to be a positive force in change for the better, but only if we are first willing to stand up for ourselves and care for ourselves.”
The simultaneous, three-campus event was one of a number nationwide organized by Care2, a large online community that works to empower people to take action on important causes. Gatherings also took place in Washington, D.C.; Austin, Texas; Chicago; Philadelphia; Kansas City; St. Louis; Middletown, N.Y.; and Harrogate, Tenn.
Christie Murphy, D.O. (’98), an associate lecturer in primary care and organizer of the solidarity event in Cleveland, said concern for students and residents prompted her to get involved. She called for an end to the stigma that sometimes attaches to seeking help for mental health issues. “If you are suffering from depression we want you to talk about it,” she told students. “We want you to find help. I also want every medical student in this country to expect that his or her school will attempt to create an environment that supports the mental wellness of students.”
Jennifer Gwilym, D.O. (’03), an assistant professor of family medicine, organized the event in Athens. “I became involved with the solidarity project because I feel it is important to bring awareness to the suicide epidemic that affects so many medical professionals,” Gwilym said. “Physicians suffering in silence is no longer an option. One physician life lost to suicide is too many.”
In Athens, assistant professor of social medicine Joseph Bianco, Ph.D., described how the tenets of osteopathic medicine “can be a compass – guiding principles that can literally inoculate you against despair.” And by healing themselves, he added, osteopathic physicians can heal their profession as well.
“Every time you embrace fallibility and refuse to be perfect, every time you choose to cooperate rather than compete with your colleagues, every time you refuse to engage in cynicism and bitterness, you will change both yourself and your profession,” he promised. “Slowly, by degrees, medicine will take a different form, and will serve a different function.”