Silence is Deadly
Every year, more than 6,000 women die by suicide. Most of them have suffered from depression.
By Michele Cohen Marill
Eva Schernhammer, a physician and epidemiologist at Harvard Medical School and Brigham and Women’s Hospital, will never forget her time as a fellow in the oncology department at a small hospital in Vienna, Austria. In a 24-month period, three medical residents and a professor died by suicide. Two of them were women.
The first was a 32-year-old medical resident with a young child. She and Schernhammer worked closely together, but Schernhammer did not know she suffered from depression. In fact, the woman had asked to avoid a rotation in oncology, one of the most emotionally difficult areas of medicine, but the request had been denied.
What pushed her to take her own life? What could have been done to prevent it? Schernhammer, now an assistant professor at Harvard specializing in the epidemiology of breast cancer, remains haunted by those questions. She conducted a review of literature and found that suicide rates for women physicians were twice as high as the general population.
“There is also usually some sort of acute trigger,” Schernhammer says. “In the case of my colleague, it could have been something little, like she was facing a double shift over the weekend. Maybe there were other issues she had to encounter. Something acute clouds your outlook and perhaps drives you into a decision.”
Working in oncology means facing death. But Schernhammer also takes the opportunity to think about life. “My recommendation for women who are in highly stressful jobs is that they should try to step back when stress accumulates and look at the bigger picture,” she says.
Depression can be treated, and the darkness can turn to light.
Kristin Brooks Hope Center. Maintains a link to suicide prevention hotlines at 1.800.422.HOPE.
Mental Health America, formerly the National Mental Health Association. Provides information and advocacy on mental health.
National Institute of Mental Health. Provides information and conducts research about depression and other mental health issues.
National Suicide Prevention Lifeline. A hotline for people in crisis. 1.800.273.TALK.
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