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Suicidal Ideation Common among Surgeons: Why?

Surgeons aren't invulnerable to stress. (istockphoto)

(CBS/AP) Shows like "House" make the operating room seem glamorous, but a new study suggests surgeons are a miserable lot. The long hours and extraordinary pressure seem to lead to depression.

Job burnout, medical errors, and possibly the fear of making an error can lead surgeons to contemplate suicide at higher rates than the general public, the study suggests.

Surgeons are also less likely to seek help, apparently because they fear losing their jobs. Nearly 8,000 surgeons participated in the study, published in the January issue of "Archives of Surgery."

Close to 6 percent reported recent suicidal thoughts, but the rate shot up to 16 percent among those who'd made a recent major medical error. By contrast, only about 3 percent of the general population has suicidal thoughts.

About 25 percent of surgeons with suicidal thoughts said they'd sought professional mental health treatment. Among the general population, 44 percent of those with suicidal thoughts reported seeking treatment.

"Surgeons reported a great deal of concern about potential repercussions for their license to practice medicine," and many admitted self-medicating with antidepressant drugs, said lead author Dr. Tait Shanafelt of the Mayo Clinic.

Surgeons were asked whether they'd had suicidal thoughts within the past year. They weren't asked about suicide attempts, but the authors said up to 50 percent of people who think about suicide make an attempt.

Overall, surgeons in the study worked 60 hours per week on average. Forty percent felt burned out, and 30 percent had symptoms of depression.

Most said their work left little time for personal and family life, yet few who worked less than 40 hours a week had suicidal thoughts.

"Surgeons also exist in a culture that, like it or not, honors self-denial, prizes impervious resilience, and tends to interpret imperfection as failure," wrote Dr. Kelly L. McCoy and Dr. Sally E. Carty in an editorial published along with the study editorial published with the study. Both are surgeons at the University of Pittsburgh's medical school.

If I were having surgery, I'd prefer my surgeon well-rested and in a good mood before she or he picks up the scalpel, wouldn't you?