Youth Suicide: The Impact on Health-Care Providers

Pediatricians and other primary care providers work diligently to care for youth. However, providers can sometimes forget to care for themselves, especially when facing difficult topics such as youth suicide.

Read on for guidance about ways to prioritize your own well-being to help you continue offering hope and support to others.



portrait of physician
Dr. Rosa LambertSpecialty: Pediatrics

Dr. Lambert runs a clinic in a small Texas city. A few months ago, one of her patients—a star high school football player—died by suicide. The news of his death shattered the community. The young man had not sought any medical or mental health treatment; however, many local people knew Dr. Lambert was his primary care doctor.

Dr. Lambert also serves as the primary care provider for the young man’s two siblings who are in middle school. As the weeks go by, the family’s and community’s grief have begun to weigh on Dr. Lambert and her staff. Their distress is not an uncommon experience for pediatric primary care providers who deal with youth suicide.

What steps can Dr. Lambert, you and other providers facing youth suicides take to care for themselves so they can care for others?

  • Check in with yourself

    Youth suicide is a challenging phenomenon, and health-care providers are on the front lines. Suicide is the second leading cause of death for U.S. children and adolescents ages 10 through 24 years (Centers for Disease Control and Prevention [CDC], 2019). Youth suicides can take a toll on health-care providers who are at disproportionate risk for burnout, depression and suicide compared to the general population.

    Fact: Suicide rates for U.S. doctors

    Men: 40% higher than general population

    Women: 130% higher than general population

    Source: Kalmoe, Chapman, Gold, & Giedinghagen, 2019

    You may also have a personal experience with suicide, in which case the topic may be a trigger that causes intense, personal distress. Being aware of your thoughts, emotions and behaviors is a key step to understanding your own needs when suicide occurs. Allow yourself to experience these uncomfortable thoughts and emotions, and understand they are typical reactions when someone dies by suicide.

  • Learn to foster resilience

    Don’t be hard on yourself. Both you and your patients can work on building resilience.

    Take steps to foster your own resilience, and don’t underestimate your power in being supportive and making a difference to youth and families in crisis, as challenging as it may feel to you in the moment.

    Most youth trust their health-care provider. You can support them by being present in a caring way, validating their experience, engaging in authentic conversation and working with them to map out realistic action steps.

    Tell them: “I’m here. I care. There’s hope.”

  • Consider talking to a mental health professional

    Guilt, sadness and anger are common feelings. After a suicide, everyone questions if there was something they could have done differently.

    Having someone to talk to can be essential for healing. Consider talking with a licensed mental health professional if strong feelings or behaviors interfere with your personal and/or professional life.

    Open communication with professionals and your colleagues is healthy, especially when difficult circumstances such as depression, professional burnout and suicide begin to weigh on you.

    Seeking help is a positive choice.

  • Develop a plan

    You and your staff are a team. Together, you can prepare your practice to assist adolescents with suicidal thoughts and behaviors. With a plan in place, you are set up for better outcomes.

    Take the Texas Health Steps CE course Youth Suicide: Addressing Risks, Plans and Behaviors to learn more about developing a plan for your office.


If you or someone you know is having suicidal thoughts, call the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 800-273-8255 (800-273-TALK), or dial 211 and press 8.

Alert

The COVID-19 pandemic—which has caused illness and death, job losses, school closures and social isolation—may result in increased mental health consequences for many people, both young and old, according to two Viewpoint articles published in JAMA Internal Medicine and JAMA Psychiatry (2020). Now more than ever, health-care providers must take care of their emotional well-being in order to help others.

Why It Matters

Researchers continue to find that “in the service of others, physicians often forget to care for themselves” (Kalmoe, Chapman, Gold, & Giedinghagen, 2019). “Yet, physicians are human, too, and need care like anyone else.” As a primary care provider, you, like Dr. Rosa Lambert in this case study, likely will encounter the difficult reality of youth suicides. It will not be your fault. Taking steps for your own self-care will allow you to continue providing health care and support for young patients facing emotional challenges who need you.

Related Courses

Youth Suicide: Addressing Risks, Plans and Behaviors

References

Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, National Center for Health Statistics. (2019). NCHS Data Brief No. 352: Death Rates Due to Suicide and Homicide Among Persons Aged 10–24: United States, 2000–2017.

Galea, S., Merchant, R. M., & Lurie, N. (2020). The Mental Health Consequences of COVID-19 and Physical Distancing: The Need for Prevention and Early Intervention. JAMA Internal Medicine, doi:10.1001/jamainternmed.2020.1562.

Kalmoe, M. C., Chapman, M., Gold, J. A., & Giedinghagen, A. M. (2019). Physician Suicide: A Call to Action. Missouri Medicine, 116 (3), 211-216.

Reger, M. A., Stanley, I. H., & Joiner, T. E. (2020). Suicide Mortality and Coronavirus Disease 2019—A Perfect Storm? JAMA Psychiatry, doi:10.1001/jamapsychiatry.2020.1060.