Among the researched and reported articles and news items throughout the pages of Behavioral Healthcare magazine and Behavioral.net, behavioral health professionals have an opportunity to share their thoughts, opinions and expert advice through blogs. Each of our bloggers has a niche of the field that they tend to center their topics around – fundraising, facility design, leadership, technology, etc.
One of Behavioral Healthcare’s bloggers is H. Steven Moffic, M.D., who retired from the clinical practice of psychiatry and his tenured professorship at the Medical College of Wisconsin on June 30, 2012.
To get to know each of our bloggers a little better, we asked them to reflect on the following question:
“What was the most important/toughest personal or professional lesson you ever learned? When and how, or from whom, did you learn it? And, how did that lesson change you or the way that you work or lead life?”
Steve: There can be no greater failure for a psychiatrist than to have a patient commit suicide. That feels true, whether you can rationally conclude that it was not your fault.
I had my first - and only - patient suicide back in 1972, only two months into my training to be a psychiatrist. After the second session, when I thought he was getting a bit better from his depression, the elderly male patient of mine walked into Lake Michigan and drowned. It is said that "you don't become a real psychiatrist until a patient of yours commits suicide,” but at the time I felt that perhaps I wasn't fit to be a psychiatrist in the first place. My supervisors and fellow residents convinced me otherwise. I learned to pay careful attention to suicide risk ever since, including that paradoxical time when a patient seemed better, but that was because they now had the energy and resolve to plan and carry out a suicide. This situation is why so many of us and the public are surprised by a suicide.
The second was fifteen years later by a staff member of a large community mental health center where I was the Medical Director. He missed work for 3-4 days and we thought he might be sick with AIDS. Another staff member and I decided to go to his home and check on him. We found him dead, in bed, with a gunshot wound to his head. Processing this, I found that psychiatrists and other mental health professionals had the highest rate of suicide among any professionals. We needed to care for each other as much as we cared for our patients.
On Yom Kippur Day, September 14th, 2013, the Jewish High Holy Day where you ask for forgiveness and to be put into "The Book of Life" for next year, the same day this year as the last day of our national Suicide Awareness and Prevention Week, I was part of a panel on suicide at our house of worship. I had decided to present those two suicides for the first time ever in public. I started to talk, but I sobbed instead. Obviously, these "failures" still haunted me in ways I did not expect. In the front row, a man softly said: "Take your time, relax.” I did and went on.
Afterwards, I went up to thank him. He turned out to be none other than the father of a young lady who committed suicide two months earlier, an event that was so traumatic that her funeral drew an overflow crowd. He and others were starting a suicide prevention process. I now knew that preventing suicide and comforting the survivors is a community responsibility, and that talking about it can be therapeutic.
Over Steve’s career, he gained the recognition as an award-winning administrator, artist, clinician, and writer. His blogs often cover leadership and he has been known to bring his own professional experiences into his writing.
He wrote "Better Off in Prison? A Psychiatrist Gains New Insight on the State of Behavioral Healthcare After Joining the Staff at a Wisconsin Prison" after serving as a staff psychiatrist at Kettle Moraine Correctional Institute, in Plymouth, Wisc.
Stay tuned for more “Meet the BH Bloggers” pieces, and be sure to check out Steve Moffic’s blog posts.