Campaign Confidential first covered the work of the Disappearing Doctors in September and while the issue of physician burnout and suicide hasn’t gone away, neither has the organization’s commitment to offering support to the challenges healthcare professionals (HCP) face.
When Justin Kovarsy, VP and creative director of FCB Health New York, first started working with the Disappearing Doctors, a coalition of healthcare organizations that is seeking to mitigate the effects of physician burnout and suicide, the enormity of the task soon became apparent.
“I would talk to people about doctor suicide and they’d be shocked. ‘Why would they be sad? They can go cry in their BMWs,’ is the most crass way that some would put it. Other people would say, ‘These people are leaders. They have everything, what could they possibly be sad about?’”
Through advocacy work and awareness campaigns, he notes that there has been a societal evolution following the emergency phase of the COVID-19 pandemic begetting a greater understanding for the challenges HCPs endure.
Still, the issue hasn’t gone away and so the initiative’s work continues on.
Over the past few months, Disappearing Doctors decided the most urgent need was to create a space where HCPs could reach out to colleagues for support. The first thing the coalition did was create a platform where doctors could talk to one another anonymously.
The Disappearing Doctors platform, built in partnership with physician networking platform Sermo, provides a safe space for doctors to share their experiences. To date, there are around 800,000 members across 150 countries.
Some other statistics speak to the scale of the problem Disappearing Doctors is trying to tackle. Healthcare professions are frequently ranked as those with some of the highest suicide rates, a distinction that is sometimes disputed.
Yet the frequency and severity of mental exhaustion and suicidal ideation remain. According to a 2021 study cited by the campaign, one of every 10 doctors has considered or attempted suicide. An estimated 400 doctors will likely die of suicide this year, while three out of every four doctors meet the criteria for burnout.
These underlying problems are exacerbated by the fact that many doctors fear repercussions if they seek mental health help, as they may face questions about their ability to fulfill their professional obligations.
That prompted FCB Health New York to take another approach at mitigating the crisis.
“What we did next after [the Disappearing Doctors platform] turned out to be successful was to take a step back and ask ‘What’s needed now?’” Kovarsy says. “There’s all this grief that’s been swept under the rug from the pandemic, from the deaths of specific doctors and it was time to have a moment of reflection. It was a time to engage with this in a different way so that the wider public could think about some of these issues as well.”
Turning medical waste into art
Enter the Disposables, a series of portraits created using medical waste of doctors who have died by suicide, continues the effort while giving it a slightly different focus.
Jeremy Rosario, an artist as well as VP and associate creative director at FCB Health New York, was drawn to the idea of using recycled materials to create new works of art — namely portraits of doctors who had died by suicide.
After facing reluctance on the part of some institutions, he discovered that individual doctors, nurses, and other HCPs embraced the idea, donating old medical materials as a way to honor and memorialize their colleagues.
“It was a true grassroots effort, not only from the people who were donating items but also those who were coming along for the journey, sharing progress and being part of this work,” he says.
Kovarsy adds: “These are the people who keep us alive and keep us healthy, who enable so much and they are treated like, in our opinion, trash and are being thrown out and discarded.”
Rosario’s portraits as well as more information about the problem of burnout and suicide among doctors can be found on the Disappearing Doctors Instagram page. The portraits have also been displayed at several events with other exhibitions planned for the future.
When the portraits have been displayed, Rosario reports that they have led to difficult but necessary conversations within the healthcare community.
“To my surprise, the artwork helps people get up and speak of their own personal experiences as residents or in medical school around suicide,” he says. “As the stories accumulated, many doctors approached us and said how this would have never been a conversation that would have taken place in the past. It feels like a step in the right direction.”
Despite the progress made by Disappearing Doctors in creating an online community and now its use of these portraits of doctors to spark conversations, neither Kovarsy or Rosario see the problem as likely to be resolved soon.
“As technology increasingly moves into medicine and corporate consolidation puts more pressure on doctors who now have bigger workloads and more electronic records to keep track of, we’re seeing the unfortunate knock-on events of mental health issues,” Kovarsy says.
He adds that this focus on the systemic issues behind burnout and suicide has been one of the main evolutions of the Disappearing Doctors initiative.
“In the beginning, we were focused on helping the individual, whereas I think now we’re taking a bigger purview and seeing that these are not personal failings,” Kovarsy says. “These are cultural and structural and societal and systemic failures, and that culture that you’re talking about is bigger than any individual.”
The 988 Suicide and Crisis Lifeline is a hotline for individuals in crisis or for those looking to help someone else. To speak with a trained listener, call 988. Visit 988lifeline.org for crisis chat services or for more information.