Doctors are duty bound to save lives. But more and more in Germany are choosing to ignore the Hippocratic oath when it comes to themselves.
The stress of working with the sick and dying can push many doctors over the edge.
The suicide rate among male doctors in Germany is twice as high as that among people in other professions. Among female doctors the rate is even higher—four times the average.
Every year from 100 to 200 German doctors take their own lives and those numbers have gone up over the past few years, say experts.
“At least one colleague a month comes to me with suicidal thoughts,” said Bernhard Mäulen, a psychiatrist who treats more than 100 doctors in his practice. “That used to happen only rarely.”
Some experts say the numbers of doctor suicides could be even much higher than what is officially reported—even up to ten times higher, since many coroners may record an incorrect cause of death on the death certificate when it comes to a colleague. Consideration for the family may be the reason or because routine toxicological tests may not recognize the drugs doctors have self administered.
With Deadly Efficiency
Doctors’ training in the body’s mechanics and pharmacology gives them deadly expertise when it comes to ending life.
Easy access to drugs makes the task easier. Three out of four doctors choose injection drugs as their preferred method. One in four swallows tablets.
Their methods are usually thorough. Typical for a doctor suicide is one that uses several ways to cause death. In one case in Germany a doctor took an overdose of sleeping pills, injected himself with morphium, then put a noose around his neck before shooting himself in the heart. Other use scalpels to sever just the artery that will bring death quickly and narcotics that numb pain and lessen fear.
“It is shocking,” wrote the author of a commentary in the journal Medical Tribune, “how highly specialised colleagues use their knowledge almost cold-bloodedly to end their own lives.”
“Why do so many doctors kill themselves?” asked the Munich Medical Weekly not long ago. It had no answer and little research has actually been done in the area.
High job stress plays a role, experts say, especially since the average German doctor puts in a 54 hour work week. One estimate says almost one in three doctors uses alcohol or drugs—sometimes both—in order to withstand the rigors of long hours and chronic stress.
A survey conducted last year said one third of the nation’s doctors were unsatisfied with their quality of life.
Financial difficulties are the reason behind some suicides, as are private lives neglected due to job demands, says psychiatrist Mäulen.
“I’ve never seen as many asexual marriages in any professional group as I do among doctors,” he said.
Addiction figures among doctors are high. Experts estimate that around 20,000 German doctors suffer from some sort of addiction. And according to Matthias Gottschaldt, specialist at a clinic in the Black Forest, more than one half of those are alcoholic.
Up to now, psychiatrists were believed to be the doctors most at danger from suicide. But newer research shows that field has broadened. Now surgeons, anaesthesiologists, internists, gynaecologists and even eye doctors have been added to the “high risk” groups.