Content warning: This article deals with suicide and may be triggering for some readers.
Sometimes there are no words. Not even a eulogy.
Then one courageous family writes this obituary. (This obituary was written by Rachel Dawson, Dr. Chris Dawson’s wife, with the blessing of his parents.) In it, they share how he lost his battle with severe depression. How he adored his children. How he sacrificed fun, free time, and relaxation to receive his medical degree. How he took on the challenge of surgical residency. How he was so very damaged by his untreated anxiety, long work hours, and intense stress. How he attempted to self-medicate his hurt. How despite being an intelligent surgeon and a loving father, he did the unimaginable.
I first heard of Dr. Chris Dawson just hours after his suicide in a Facebook private message:
My friend who is also a doctor’s wife is going through a nightmare at this very moment. Her husband graduated residency this summer along with my husband, and he killed his two small kids and himself this morning. Her husband had depression due to the difficulty of residency season and never recovered from it. I know residency is hard, I always said it’s a real b#%^*, but if you know your partner is having a rough time, suffers from mental illness or is going through a depression get him some help. At all cost! My heart is broken for my friend who no longer has her babies. This med journey can be very hard and can take you through a darkness if you don’t get the help needed. It was so close to home that I had to share. Mental illness is nothing to be ashamed of.
I’m a doctor, a problem solver. I study human suffering so I can help people. That’s my job.
In 2012, I became alarmed by how many doctors were dying by suicide. So I started counting them. I began with a list of 10. Today I have 699.
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Now I run a suicide hotline for doctors.
During the last five years, I’ve spoken to thousands of suicidal doctors; interviewed surviving physicians, families, and friends; and published a book of their suicide letters, I’ve spent nearly every waking moment since 2012 on a personal quest for the truth of why we lose so many doctors to suicide. Here’s what I’ve discovered.
Of the 699 doctor suicides I’ve compiled, only two per cent (15) involve a homicide. Half of those (7) are male physicians who killed a female spouse/girlfriend (all in health care — four nurses, a nursing student, pharmacy tech, and dentist). Three male physicians killed their young children. Another strangled his disabled adult daughter before killing himself. Less than one per cent of all doctor suicides involve homicide of their children. Of the three cases involving young children, all suicide victims were having marital/relationship problems with the mother. One also killed the mother.
Why would a doctor dedicated to saving lives take his own? And the lives of his loved ones?
Many doctors write suicide notes explaining their motives. A few leave extensive documentation — even videos (often they are whistleblowers exposing fraudulent hospital systems). Still, questions remain.
Motives for murders perpetrated by doctors often involve ending perceived suffering of others. Four of the 15 physicians were attempting to end distress in dependent family members prior to taking their own lives. They wanted to protect siblings from an abusive parent; to stop an aging mother’s misery; to prevent institutionalisation of a severely disabled adult daughter for whom the physician was full-time caregiver; to end the suffering of a child tormented with the same anxiety disorder as the dad. None of these four physicians seem to have been acting with malicious intent when they took the lives of others before killing themselves.
So how do we respond as a society to these suicides? Often with an outpouring of love for the surviving family amid condemnation of the suicide victim mixed with lots of confusion.