I feel your pain: Suicide’s impact on the mental health professional
As a mental health professional, two experiences with suicide have stayed with me over time. The first occurred while working on an inpatient unit. A young woman jumped five stories from a parking garage and survived. Due to be discharged the next day and distraught at the prospect of leaving the hospital, she tried suicide for a second time. Her first attempt, an overdose of Tylenol, led to the initial inpatient admission.
The second incident occurred while I was working as a Program Director at a Community Mental Health Center. On a Sunday afternoon, I received a call from one of my team members stating that staff had found a dead body outside of the building. The mother of five children, the deceased was the victim of childhood sexual abuse. She was receiving care at the center because of an overwhelming fear of sexually abusing her own children. That fear morphed into delusion; she had no intent to abuse her children but convinced herself that someday she would.
The experiences were very different, but the effects were the same. The first incident affected me more as an individual, the second more as a professional. In both cases, I, along with other team members as well as the facilities, were sued. In the first case, I had to provide testimony about the very person who could have helped me through this experience – the attending psychiatrist – but because of the legal proceedings, we weren’t allowed to have contact. To this day, both of these experiences envelope me like a fog that refuses to lift.
The silver lining to the dark cloud
No one wants to experience suicide, personally or professionally. Its devastation can be lasting. However, if there is something that I can take away from the two experiences is how they made me not only a better person but also a better professional. As a person, today I am more patient, more tolerant. I now truly understand the trite but true expression that “bad things happen to good people”. I appreciate better that people can be equally fragile and resilient, and that’s what makes us simultaneously frustratingly and wonderfully complicated.
The experiences have profoundly affected me as a professional as well. First and foremost, I really learned, on a whole new level, what it meant to be a clinician. It can be complex, grueling and very sad. The boundaries aren’t clear, and there aren’t always signs to point to what will happen next. In spite of all of that difficulty, I became better at what I did. I listened better. I took more time to work things through with patients and coworkers. I understood the devastation and suffering not only of the patients but of those people in their community, family, friends, and clinicians. And I knew that even when I tried my hardest, I would miss things.
I really learned, on a whole new level, what it meant to be a clinician. It can be complex, grueling and very sad. The boundaries aren’t clear, and there aren’t always signs to point to what will happen next.
As an Assistant Vice President, Provider Partnerships, at Beacon Health Options, I am now a better managed care professional. At Beacon, I work to integrate the company’s clinical vision with network providers by collaborating with them on the best ways to deliver evidence-based care. Today, I better understand what mental health providers are up against. Mental health conditions are much murkier, less predictable, than most physical health conditions, which leads to uncharted territory. Facing minute-to-minute stress, situations can become incendiary, escalating quickly.
Knowing all of this, combined with a knowledge of the evidence base, helps me to design clinical interventions better. How can we best partner with providers who take the risk to continue working with multi-stressed populations? I make the effort to integrate the provider experience into clinical processes. I ask questions, and I know I won’t get all of it right but truly believe that a shared approach offers the best changes at success for the community.
Beacon Lens has expressed many times that crafting solutions to pressing healthcare problems won’t occur in a vacuum. It requires ongoing dialogue and work from all stakeholders. As someone who has experienced suicide as both a provider and as a managed care professional, I’m calling on all stakeholders to humanize business practice during times of crisis. As a business practice, it’s only good human practice.