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Clinicians’ Self-Disclosure of Mental Illness and Burnout Can Be the Key to Hope

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On Sunday, May 6 at 8 a.m. at the 2018 Annual Meeting for the American Psychiatric Association (APA) in New York City, I sat next to colleagues from NYU and gave a talk about my upcoming podcast. The show, called “Self-Disclosure,” is still in production, and was created with a serious purpose: to serve as a public health intervention to provide stories of hope for people (especially physicians) struggling with mental illness and thoughts of suicide.

Several colleagues from NYU and I had talked about creating such content for the radio. But what I didn’t know at the time was that one of our psychiatrist colleagues-in-training would be found dead after ending her life for reasons that, like all suicides, are deeply personal and unknowable. Her suicide occurred only one week after a medical student’s life ended by suicide at the same institution. These severe losses have occurred after so many physician and trainee suicides in New York City that I have lost count.

Later that same week, I gave a talk with Julie Chilton, MD, Nate Sharon, MD, and Lara Cox, MS, MD, on the topic of using self-disclosure to facilitate physician wellness events. All of the presenters related their stories of speaking publicly about having a mental illness as a way to create a safer environment for psychiatrists to speak about their own mental health struggles and triumphs.

“This is the first time I’ve felt safe talking about these issues,” said one of the audience members at the end of the session. “It’s not just burnout — it’s depression and other mental illnesses we needed to talk about.”

Clearly, the toll that training and practice takes on psychiatrists is tremendous, and the current approaches we have had towards promoting physician wellness have not done much to slow the tide of physician suicide, morbidity, mortality, and early exit from clinical practice. It was gratifying to see APA include presentations such as ours in the program. These inclusions in the scientific program underscore an understanding of the seriousness of the risks to both physicians and the patients we serve. The death of a psychiatrist is an earthquake in the lives of not just their families, coworkers, and loved ones, but also in the lives of the countless patients who come to us to find hope. As a presenter at the meeting, I was proud to be able to contribute to a small way to the conversation about keeping ourselves and each other well, while saddened by how timely that message was.

Our message was simple: the solution starts with us, and it starts with dismantling stigma with our own stories of hope and recovery shared with our colleagues.

Dr. Owen Muir is a child and adult psychiatrist practicing in Brooklyn, NY. He is the medical director at and an attending child and adolescent psychiatrist on staff at Rockland Children’s Psychiatric Hospital. He is also the owner of Self-Disclosure Productions, LLC, a podcast production company.

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