A Personal Story of Loss by Suicide (Part 5 of 5)

Support Physicians' Mental Health and Well-Being

Learn more about how you can urge Congress to pay attention: https://p2a.co/H1ocr0N

Finding Neutral Ground

Culture change was not happening at the pace my passion desired. One thing I did to navigate my own frustrations with the political environment was to realize that I have to be creative. If I’m not getting traction here, what else do I need to do? It required reflection. I needed to look beyond my four walls.

Chattanooga is unique. In the city center is the University of Tennessee College of Medicine and the affiliate hospital, and within a five-mile radius we have three health care systems, one large insurance carrier, Blue Cross Blue Shield, and a medical society of physicians. A lot of physicians practice in more than one health care system. While there is healthy competition, there is also substantial collegial trust among a generation of physicians who’ve known each other for decades.

The medical society is the neutral ground. I resonated with the medical society’s cause of service to fight for patients, plus care of patient and physician. I have been involved as a board member and now co-chair of the Wellness Task Force that I started through the Chattanooga-Hamilton County Medical Society.

With the help of the CEO of the medical society, we wrote a grant and created a LifeBridge program so that physicians could receive up to six free sessions with a psychologist without jeopardizing their credentials or licensure. This encourages physicians to seek mental health care before they are in crisis, without fear of being stereotyped or stigmatized and without retribution.

What Can I Control?

From 2016 to 2017 I had to do a lot of growing up myself and maturing. I learned to tell myself, You don’t have to convince everybody. Walk steady yourself first and let your actions speak louder. I wanted the administrators to see me as more than a touchy-feely doctor they could roll their eyes around. That’s when I learned I had to be kind toward myself. I’d get easily frustrated, saying, “Come on, don’t you realize this is something we need?”

I want to normalize the culture of vulnerability because we all face it. Before we come to work, we must show a physical fitness for duty. We fear disclosing any mental or behavioral issues. Why is having an emotional issue such a taboo?

I did a lot of outreach to fuel my own passion in a positive way, but also to create the fire where everybody wants to fuel it for a common good. I had to make a choice and a commitment, asking myself, What do I have control over? I had to start small and realize that data speaks. I had to find cheerleaders for my own work and be a cheerleader for others. It took courage to challenge and empower myself and others with continuous reflection…halt…reflection…halt.

I invited people I knew to be coaches for each other, enforcing the importance of compassion and care, reinforcing that they must interact in kind and gentle ways. It was also important to celebrate and showcase achievements as a confirmation that we could do this together. Our collective courage led to changing the culture and building a community.

There are days I take five steps forward. Some days I will say, “That was a wonderful meeting.” Other days, it feels like I’m taking ten steps backward. I am happy with little cumulative outcomes.

The Secret to Peace

I once had the opportunity to be in the presence of His Holiness the Dalai Lama. I was fortunate to attend a 2016 meeting called “The World We Make,” where he was hosted by the Center for Healthy Minds at the University of Wisconsin–Madison.[i] He was a member of the panel that was responding to questions from the audience. What impressed me most was his genuine simplicity and humility.

One person asked His Holiness what he thought was the secret to world peace. I distinctly remember His Holiness looking down for a long while. He was attired in his customary red-orange robe, this time complemented by a ball cap gifted by his host.

After a silence he looked up and broke into laughter, eyes twinkling. Pointing at the member who had asked the question, he responded (I paraphrase), “I do not have the secret to world peace, you have. You take care of him, he takes care of her, she takes care of him and so on, going down the line of people in the row, and you have world peace.”

What a weighty invitation for us all, paradoxically simple yet difficult to achieve, and definitely not intangible!

Thank you for reading my posts this week. I hope they helped shine a light on the value of human life, how we must support our colleagues and loved ones—and ask for help when we need it ourselves. Please see more resources below.

Why This Story Now?

This week on September 17 is National Physician Suicide Awareness Day. I hope to help shine a light on this epidemic that now exists within a pandemic, especially with a stark “second wave” season ahead of fighting COVID-19.

Each day this week I am posting an excerpt from Chapter 16, “The Good Physician” from my recent book, Resilient Threads: Weaving Joy and Meaning into Well-Being. This chapter is the story of losing my good friend and colleague to his death by suicide and how it fueled my inner fire to co-create a culture of well-being at my institution and to help establish the Lifebridge Program with the Chattanooga-Hamilton County Medical Society to encourage physicians to reach out before they are in a crisis.

Urge Congress: Please Support Mental Health Resources and Protections for COVID-19 Health Care Professionals

In April 2020, Dr. Lorna Breen, an emergency physician, died by suicide. She is not the only one, not by far. Her family has established the Lorna Breen Foundation and has partnered with CORD and other organizations to present a bill to the U.S. Congress, the “Dr. Lorna Breen Health Care Provider Protection Act.” Learn more and share this link to urge Congress to support this initiative: https://p2a.co/H1ocr0N

If you are having thoughts of suicide or self harm, please call a friend or a loved one, or the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 1-800-273-8255 (TALK) or text TALK to 741741.

In Chattanooga, TN, call the confidential LifeBridge LINE: 423-591-9830.