Photo of Dr Michael Myers for article by Dr Michael Myers on physicians' health and the power of lived experience

The Magnitude of Lived Experience

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This is a dispatch from Down Under. I’ve been here lecturing for the past couple of weeks on physician health and suicide prevention. On May 31, I was a panelist on the 2019 launch of the CrazySocks4Docs event at the Peter MacCallum Cancer Centre in Melbourne.

A bit of background. The Twitter phenomenon #CrazySocks4Docs is the brainchild of cardiologist Dr. Geoff Toogood who crashed into a suicidal depression a few years ago and nearly lost his life. Having delayed seeking help and bearing the brunt of colleagues’ insensitive and hurtful comments, especially about resilience, he decided to go public with his story. The “crazysocks” name originated when he wore unmatched socks to work one day (his newly acquired puppy had chewed up most of his clean socks!), prompting a person who was familiar with his psychiatric history to ask (behind his back) whether he was getting ill again. He is committed to raising awareness of mental health issues in physicians and fighting the dangerous stigma associated with help-seeking. What has resulted is a tsunami of solidarity with and among fellow health professionals on social media. I was proud to join the standing ovation on May 25 in Brisbane when Geoff accepted the Australian Medical Association’s President’s Award for his advocacy. There were very few dry eyes in the room.

But back to the launch. After a short speech by Victoria Minister of Health Jenny Mikakos (and a pledge of substantial dollars to physician health initiatives!), Dr. Sally Cockburn, general practitioner (GP) and media personality, moderated the one-hour program. Dr. Kate Harding, whom I’ve mentioned in a previous blog post, GP and palliative care physician from Herefordshire, England spoke by video about losing her husband Richard, an anesthetist, to suicide in 2017. Undergoing treatment for depression, his mood plummeted—and proved fatal—after a patient complaint. Kate is working hard to effect change in the complaints’ process in the UK.

Next on the panel was Geoff. He shared more about his journey of healing. He highlighted the significance of the abiding love and support of his daughter, sister and mother who were in the audience. We then heard from Dr. Yumiko Kadota, a former registrar (resident) in plastic and reconstructive surgery. She described the unrelenting weight of unregulated duty hours and bullying in her program that resulted in her being hospitalized for six weeks. “Miko” is taking time out to get well and to plan next steps in her career. With youthful savvy and eloquence, she is blogging and doing public speaking, especially to medical students and residents.

As the solo psychiatrist on the panel, my role was largely that of mental health commentator, which I was pleased to do. I emphasized how much we must be our brothers’ and sisters’ keepers in medicine and I aired my oft-repeated mantra that all physicians, irrespective of career stage, should have a primary care physician (GP in Australia). I also appealed to the psychiatrists in the audience (just as I do here in America) to step up to the plate and make themselves available to their ailing medical colleagues.

My take-home message in this blog post? Physicians with lived experience who are speaking openly about their illnesses are a burgeoning phenomenon in the physician health movement. Their stories are a priceless gift to all of us in medicine. Whether we are in the patient or treater role, we know that we are not alone. It is a profound message when a national body of physicians gives their highest honor to a peer with lived experience: that we don’t have to hide in the shadows and live in shame when we experience symptoms of a mental illness. Bravo!

Dr. Myers is Professor of Clinical Psychiatry and immediate past Vice-Chair of Education and Director of Training in the Department of Psychiatry & Behavioral Sciences at SUNY-Downstate Medical Center in Brooklyn, NY. He is the author of 8 books, the most recent of which are “Why Physicians Die by Suicide: Lessons Learned from Their Families and Others Who Cared” and “The Physician as Patient: A Clinical Handbook for Mental Health Professionals” (with Glen Gabbard, MD). He is a specialist in physician health and has written extensively on that subject. Currently, Dr. Myers serves on the Advisory Board to the Committee for Physician Health of the Medical Society of the State of New York. He is a recent past president (and emeritus board member) of the New York City Chapter of the American Foundation for Suicide Prevention.

The views expressed on this blog are solely those of the blog post author and do not necessarily reflect the views of the Psychiatry & Behavioral Health Learning Network or other Network authors. Blog entries are not medical advice.

This blog was first published on Psychiatry and Behaviour Health Learning Network on 10 June 2019

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Michael was born in Canada and grew up always wanting to be a doctor. Only a few months into medical school, in the fall of 1962, his life was jarred by the suicide death of one of his 3 medical student room-mates. Bill's tragic death not only propelled him into psychiatry but also into becoming a specialist in physician health and a "doctors' doctor." He treated his first physician-patient on Christmas day 1970 and since then has cared for close to 1000 medical students and physicians. Now retired from private practice, he continues to teach medical students and residents about the many psychological and sociocultural aspects of medicine at SUNY Downstate Medical Center in Brooklyn, New York. Writing is his passion - some would say "addiction." Most of his books and scholarly works are for and about physicians and their families. He is very committed to recapturing and embracing the humanism of medicine. He can be reached via his website: www.michaelfmyers.com.

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