Content warning: this story contains content about suicide. If you or someone you know is struggling with suicidal thoughts, reach out to one of the resources we have provided in this article.
Written by Dr. Shelley Anderson
A lifetime ago.
I write this with some trepidation as it is not only my story to tell. Physician suicide has quite the impact. Family, friends, colleagues, patients and the entire medical community will often be devastated and for some those wounds might never completely heal. So I will go gently here, with care and caution, and with respect, not just for those who remain but for that physician himself.
He was a son, a brother, a friend and a colleague.
He was my husband.
During our third year of residency he died by suicide. In that coldest of winter months he was suddenly gone and what remained was immeasurable grief and pain. And shock. Because in the weeks following his death I discovered I was pregnant. Widowed at 28, pregnant, half-way through residency training and having to sell our home due to an archaic and punitive “no suicide” insurance clause. To say things seemed bleak would be an understatement.
I’m writing this today because now, all these years later, I have stepped into this physician health and wellness role at Doctors Manitoba and I feel that with this role comes the responsibility of honesty and sharing. Those who have known me best over the years know that I am a very private person. I have never spoken publicly about this or any of the other really difficult periods in my life but, as I hear from members increasingly in distress, it seems as though the time has come. My intent here is to share MY story. I won’t go into details surrounding my late husband’s death or speak to the much larger and alarming reality of physician suicide. It’s an important but difficult topic that requires much care, time and space to do it justice. But by being open and honest about my struggles, and the ways in which I sought help to maintain my own health, perhaps someone reading this will feel better able to do the same.
Following his death I was surrounded by family and friends, had the support and care of my training program, and received countless encouraging cards and notes from peers and strangers. They kept me going and for that I will be forever grateful.
But I still felt very alone. And unsure. And afraid. And angry. And all the while excited and grateful for the chance to be a mom after having had some earlier miscarriages. I was a jumble of emotions and thoughts and was having a hard time seeing my way forward. I developed symptoms of depression and, with the help of my program mentors, sought treatment from a psychiatrist who would help me process the grief and everything along with it. After an 18-month leave of absence, and the ongoing support of many, I returned to my residency training while balancing the needs of my work and studies with those of my young daughter. I ultimately remarried and went on to have two more children before successfully completing my program. But it was tough. Marrying again and trying to start anew after a traumatic loss is tricky and together, we sought the help of a couples therapist as we navigated those waters. It was invaluable to have that guidance and it equipped us with the understanding and tools we would need going forward. Our family today is a healthy and strong one and as much a testament to my husband as it is to me.
Eleven years ago, at the age of 42, I was diagnosed with breast cancer and so, once again, took a year leave of absence to undergo treatment and to ensure that both the needs of my family and my own health were met. With 3 young kids it was a scary time for all of us and trying to go through surgery, chemo and radiation, while putting on a brave face for those around me, was exhausting. I joined a peer support group through Cancer Care Manitoba and found how much strength could be gained from being vulnerable and honest in a place of shared experience. Hearing from others, learning from them, feeling understood and holding their suffering with them was an incredibly profound experience. Sometimes no words were needed, because there just honestly were no words.
The funny thing is that, despite being a mental health professional, reaching out for help was still hard- that first time anyway. Admitting to myself and those around me that I couldn’t just “deal with it” (whatever that means) didn’t come naturally. To seek help was to admit defeat. It sounds so ridiculous to say now but there it is. Stigma and shame can be pretty persuasive, let me tell you. But once I had sought support and treatment, letting myself be a person instead of a physician, I came to realize just how destructive those two “s‑words” can be.
My clinical work in Geriatric Psychiatry and working with patients and families affected by dementia has taught me the importance of tending to the caregiver. They are the linchpins that keep everything afloat and when the caregiver is healthy and well and adequately supported, it benefits everyone — from the identified patient to the health care system as a whole. I’m recognizing now how relevant this is to my current role in physician health. Those in caring professions like ours need good care too. They also need the support of peers and of the larger system in which they work.
My own personal health and wellness, and that of my family, has been the compass by which I have navigated these past many years. I am conscious of my well being – mental, physical, spiritual- hoping to recognize when a change might be needed to maintain a healthy balance. I have known when I needed help and have asked for it. And I hope that I have modelled that same approach to life for my children who are now adults and embarking on their careers, including in medicine.
Our medical culture has been, in many ways, a problematic one for a long time. The pandemic has exposed many cracks in the health care system and so has the potential to expose many cracks in the medical culture as well. We need to be open and honest with ourselves and with each other. We need to know that we are never alone. We need to advocate for ourselves and our colleagues to ensure that leadership and the larger system recognize the value of our well being. We need to seek help when we need it and give ourselves permission to do so. We need to acknowledge our distress and our struggles and normalize the fact that mental health is health.
Stigma and shame have no place here anymore.
Crisis and Suicide Prevention Resources
If you or someone you know is struggling with suicidal thoughts or behaviours, please consider reaching out to someone close to you for support. It is important to know the warning signs of someone who may be at risk of suicide and understand that help is available.
There are several resources in Manitoba which can provide help.
Crisis Response Centre/Mobile Crisis Services – Open 24/7 at 817 Bannatyne Ave, Winnipeg. 204.940.1781