Understanding the heartbreak of physician suicide

By Jesica Hurst, BA'14

When Dr. Michael Myers, MD’66, was in his first year of medical school at Schulich Medicine & Dentistry, one of his roommates — another first-year medical student — died by suicide. 

At only 19 years old, Dr. Myers and his other roommates had never experienced anything like that before, and they didn’t know how to properly deal with it. “In those days, you just didn’t talk about suicide — especially if the person was a medical student, resident or physician,” Dr. Myers said.

It wasn’t until years later that Dr. Myers realized that his roommate’s death must have had a deep impact on him, as he not only ended up in the field of psychiatry, but also sub-specialized in physician health.

Originally from Chatham, Ontario, Dr. Myers is a Professor of Clinical Psychiatry and Immediate Past Director of Training in the Department of Psychiatry & Behavioural Sciences at SUNY-Downstate Medical Center in Brooklyn, New York. The alumnus is known internationally for his work and support of physician health issues — particularly the stresses on physicians, residents and medical students in the areas of family relationships, marriage and interpersonal interactions at all levels.

Dr. Myers has lectured and presented workshops on these topics extensively throughout North America. And during Reunion Weekend, he will return to Schulich Medicine & Dentistry to deliver the Dean’s Distinguished Lecture.

Dr. Myers explained he will be focusing his discussion on the incredible progress that has been made in the area of physician health, as well as the work he feels still needs to be done.

Throughout his career, Dr. Myers has witnessed a lot of growth in the field of psychiatry. After finishing medical school in 1966, he completed what was called a rotating internship at the Los Angeles County General Hospital, which is affiliated with the University of Southern California School of Medicine. During that year, he was exposed to all areas of medicine.

It had always been his plan to pursue internal medicine, but in 1968 he made the decision to switch into psychiatry.

“In the 1960s, psychiatry was still a very stigmatized branch of medicine. People thought you went into psychiatry because you were weird or different, or just not good enough to pursue anything else,” he explained. “Despite all of that, I knew there was no turning back for me. Once I started my training, I knew it was the right choice.”

Dr. Myers started practising medicine toward the end of the “Golden Age of Medicine”. Throughout those decades — which spanned the turn of the century until 1970 — Dr. Myers explained the exalted status of physicians grew, and they were beginning to be seen as highly educated, elite and special. To some, they were even considered perfect.

Dr. Myers said this perception did more harm than good, because people began to think physicians were immune to all of the things that the rest of society were affected by.

“When doctors became ill or took their lives, they were largely blamed for these situations,” he said. “They were seen as weak, that they were damaging the reputation of medicine with their illnesses and deaths. That resulted in a lot of cover ups and lying about the deaths of doctors who had been psychiatrically ill.”

Fortunately, Dr. Myers has seen much improvement in this area of research. While it is estimated that approximately 300 to 400 physicians die by suicide in the United States every year, Dr. Myers said the conversation is changing and there is a much greater understanding of the role of psychiatric illness in doctors.

“There is still a lot we can improve on, including making sure that doctors get the help they need when they require it instead of ignoring their issues or putting them off,” Dr. Myers said. He added that more work also needs to be done to alleviate some of the stress and burn out medical students and residents experience.

Dr. Myers hopes people in the community will come to the Dean’s Distinguished Lecture, even if they do not work in the field of medicine.

“Most people have lost someone to suicide, or know someone who has lost someone to suicide,” he said. “This is an important conversation to take part in even if you do not work in the field of medicine — it’s a topic that affects everyone.” 

It has been 15 years since Dr. Myers visited Schulich Medicine & Dentistry. He is excited to be back on campus to have the opportunity to discuss a topic he feels incredibly passionate about. 

“When Dean Strong called me and invited me to give the lecture, I felt incredibly humbled and excited,” Dr. Myers said. “I had fantastic training at Western University — I spent four wonderful years there and have a lot of great memories from that time — so I’m excited to be back.”