I was four months into my clinical training as a medical student when I first encountered a suicide.
It wasn’t a patient.
When I was on my second placement, a junior doctor killed themselves in the hospital accommodation. I’d never met the doctor, and the hospital was a temporary home from our central hub, but that was the first time the reality of junior doctor burnout sunk in. Everyone acknowledges that junior doctors have a tough time, but how much is being done about it?
It’s known that junior doctors eat badly, sleep badly and work bad hours for about a decade of their life. As a medical student, I feel affected by it. I obviously don’t have the same burden on my hands, but I’ve been training to take on that burden for almost six years now, wondering if my experience will be similar and how much my mental health, social life and relationships will be affected by the career I chose when I was 17.
As I approach qualification, this thought is becoming more and more important to me. I’m looking forward to being a doctor after all these years because it seems you get a lot more from it – satisfaction, gratitude, money – than from being a medical student. But, from a mental health point of view, you’re getting a lot less. As a student, mental health is generally acknowledged as a real issue and although it’s not perfect, I know of many places or people I can go for help.
This isn’t the case for junior doctors – mental health isn’t acknowledged in the same way. It seems to me they are thoroughly and officially assessed in their competencies and education, with an assigned clinical supervisor, educational supervisor and programme director. Yet no one, at least not on a national level, has thought that inexperienced trainees may need some sort of pastoral care.
When I broached the subject with my sister, a junior doctor now five years post-qualifying, she said she had never been asked about her wellbeing by a more senior member of staff. Is it really that surprising that junior doctors buckle under the strain of their job before anyone notices they aren’t coping?
When the junior doctor at my hospital died, I was certain I’d hear about it in a more official way – either from the hospital or the local news. But the only traces of the event were the ambulance parked outside our accommodation that night and a hospital chaplain asking for speakers at their memorial months later. The hospital ran on as usual, and at least from a student perspective, it seemed like nothing had changed.
Medical professionals refer to some situations as never events – catastrophic accidents occurring in the NHS that often invoke a huge change in practice. For example, a misplaced feeding tube in a patient that went into the respiratory tract rather than the stomach, following which the procedure is only performed by more senior doctors in that trust or region. Disastrous accidents are vigilantly assessed within our healthcare systems because we aim to give our patients the best, safest, fairest care we can possibly deliver.
To me, junior doctor suicide is a never event – it should be as shocking and distressing to all of us, NHS workers or not. And if we strive to do the utmost for our patients, we should definitely be doing so for our most vulnerable staff.
In the UK, Samaritans can be contacted on 116 123 or email email@example.com. In the US, the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline is 1-800-273-8255. In Australia, the crisis support service Lifeline is 13 11 14. Other international suicide helplines can be found at www.befrienders.org.
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