Content warning: Contains mentions of suicide and discussions surrounding mental health.
Grit, talent, a dedication to lifelong public service, and a commitment to saving lives are some of the key attributes that describe doctors and medical students. But an important characteristic of doctors and medical students is that they are also humans, who may be selflessly pursuing a career for the common good but still require the same care and attention that any person would need.
Society tends to view doctors in a way that almost dehumanizes them as mere life-saving machines. The medical system perpetuates a systemic perception that embraces burnout culture, 24-hour calls, non-stop examinations, and overworked interns, leaving medical students and doctor residents weary. These factors can lead to suicidal ideation, depression, substance use, and, in some cases, death by suicide.
In my view, many medical schools and hospital institutions in Canada and the US have designed a system that fails to adequately prioritize the mental health of its students and doctors. It is imperative to address this issue and implement proper solutions to minimize the loss of precious lives and bright futures.
On May 24, 2023, Dr. Nakita Mortimer — a young and brilliant anesthesia physician resident who worked at Montefiore Medical Center in Bronx, New York — died by suicide. The devastating news of her passing gained some social media attention, where her close friends and colleagues demanded that the medical field needs reform and must provide more adequate means of promoting mental well-being among its trainees and students. I contacted Dr. Alysia Swint, a close friend and fellow resident doctor of Dr. Mortimer to understand who Dr. Mortimer was.
In an email to The Varsity, Dr. Swint wrote about Dr. Mortimer’s kind and compassionate essence. Not only did Dr. Mortimer have a “presence of pure joy that radiated from her, even in moments of struggle,” she was also determined to instill change in the medical community, where she fought to reduce work hours for residents and help gain the liberties medical residents should be entitled to — just like any other individual working in a non-medical career.
Dr. Swint wrote that “Dr. Mortimer attended a program that was not unionized, which meant that she and her co-residents were working hours that left little time for them to truly take care of themselves. She was fighting for unionization to fight for the same rights that people outside of medicine are allotted and often think little of. Residents are often used as cheap working power in hospital systems and the stigma against mental health remains strong within the medical profession. Ideas of physicians lacking strength and resiliency begin to negate the rights that physicians have to work within humane environments and conditions.”
Dr. Mortimer had tried to seek more support from the medical system to help alleviate the stressors residents face daily. Thus, her passing is not just another death statistic but a call for help from medical schools and hospital institutions to address why their students and doctors are pushed past their limits. Her story shows that calls for support by healthcare workers are being ignored.
To reconcile this issue, Canadian and US medical schools can create more support programs catered to addressing mental health wellness. One randomized control study in 2022 investigated the effect of an online group coaching program and its impact on burnout among a physician resident’s women cohort. The program resulted in decreasing burnout and improving the well-being of the participants.
I believe reform should also take place at the governmental level. Canadian and US governments need to provide the financial means to create support programs in medical institutions. For instance, governments should finance services for occupational health to help those who most need them.
Additionally, mental health should be destigmatized in the medical field, as the Canadian Medical Association survey found that many doctors refuse to seek help due to shame or beliefs that their situations are not severe enough. Communicating about mental health issues should be encouraged as it fosters a sense of support and ensures students and doctors get the interventions they need. Open communication about mental health could be fostered by support programs, as mentioned above, or by implementing private helplines for doctors and students.
Furthermore, as students, we can help instill change by encouraging medical schools and hospitals to support their healthcare workers. We could do this through social media to spread information about the alarming crisis and share stories like Dr. Mortimer’s, or through clubs that build alliances among students and inspire those at the graduate level to do the same.
Finally, I believe medical institutions should also provide more reasonable hours, manageable patient ratios, and prevent sleep deprivation among students due to long shifts. These are just some of the small steps that can be taken to make a difference in the mental well-being of doctors and medical students.
However, at the end of the day, these are solutions that are proposed repeatedly but are currently falling on deaf ears. Until we take action and put systems in place to safeguard our lifesaving community, medical institutions will continue jeopardizing their doctors’ and students’ mental health.
If you or someone you know is in distress, you can call:
- Good 2 Talk Student Helpline at 1-866-925-5454
- Connex Ontario Mental Health Helpline at 1-866-531-2600
- Gerstein Centre Crisis Line at 416-929-5200
- U of T Health & Wellness Centre at 416-978-8030
Dileesha Fernando is a fourth-year student at Woodsworth College studying human biology. She is the co-founder of Wellus U of T.