Alarms go off so frequently in emergency rooms, doctors barely notice. And then a colleague is wheeled in on a gurney, clinging to life, and that alarm becomes a deafening wake-up call.

For Dr. Kip Wenger, that colleague, a 33-year-old physician, was also his friend. Wenger is regional medical director for TeamHealth, one of the country’s largest emergency room staffing companies, based in Knoxville, Tenn.

“It’s devastating,” he said. “This is a young, healthy person who has everything in the world ahead of them.” His friend had confided in a few co-workers about recent relationship struggles, but none of that had affected her work.

The medical profession relies on the premise that doctors and medical staff, like highly trained endurance athletes, are conditioned to clock long hours, ignoring fatigue and the emotional toll of their work.

A particular danger for doctors trying to fend off suicidal urges is that they know exactly how to end their own lives and they often have easy access to the means.

Wenger remembered his friend and colleague as the confident professional with whom he’d worked in emergency rooms all over Knoxville — including the one where she died. That day three years ago still makes no sense to him.

A Harsh Reality

An estimated 300 to 400 doctors kill themselves each year, and the suicide rate is more than double that of the general population, according to a review of 10 years of literature on the subject presented at the American Psychiatry Association annual meeting in May.

“A few of these things happened that were just so sobering,” said TeamHealth co-founder Dr. Lynn Massingale. “People don’t stab themselves to death. Young people don’t stab themselves to death.”

It’s been an uncomfortable topic to address. A 2018 study from Mayo Clinic finds disenchanted doctors are more likely to make mistakes.

But TeamHealth held listening sessions and realized that burnout was rampant. To start, they began encouraging doctors to work less. Massingale said the company average is now close to 40 hours a week — though there’s no avoiding nights and weekends in the ER.

The company also started a new protocol for one of the most stressful times in a physician’s career: when doctors are sued. The company then pairs them with someone who has been there.

“We can’t change the facts. We’re not coaching you to change your memory,” Massingale said. “But we can help you deal with the stress of that.”

Too Close To Call For Help

And when physicians do want help, the industry makes it especially difficult. Wible said they can’t go see a psychiatrist without jeopardizing their medical license.

“I know a lot of them,” Wible said. “They’re having to sneak out of town, pay cash and use a fake name to do it. Why are we putting these people in such a situation?”

Wible has collected more than 900 stories of doctor suicides and set up an anonymous helpline. She has inspired more physicians to share their experiences, such as an emergency doctor licensed in Ohio.

The family filed a complaint. And being told he might lose his job pushed him over the edge. He swallowed a lethal overdose. But the police found him, and got him to a hospital where he had to be revived.