Que. doctor's death by suicide raises alarms over COVID-19 stress

A Granby, Que. doctor's death by suicide shocked Quebec's medical community. Now, Karine Dion's family is speaking out, saying stress from the COVID-19 pandemic led to her death.

Dion was 35 at the time of her death and had been practicing medicine for a decade.

“I lost my wife, my life,” said her husband, David Daigle. “The mother of my children. I just want to send a message for her, because she really was an incredible woman.”

That message: Quebec's healthcare workers are not getting the support they need.

According to the Canadian Association of Emergency Physicians, one out of six doctors contemplates suicide. Between five and eight per cent have reported thinking about in the past year alone.

Rod Lim, a physician and spokesperson for the association, said the most difficult part has yet to come.

“It's a scary time. Emergency doctors, we care very much about the population we serve. It's difficult to know that, as hard as things have been, darker days are ahead.”

With the healthcare system stretched to its limits, many doctors report feelings of guilt if they take time off. Diane Francoeur of the Federation of Quebec Medical Specialists said their physician assistance program is busier than ever.

“We've seen an increase of 22 per cent in calls between June and December, so that says everything,” she said. “We have to do something about it.”

Dr. Patricia Dobkin, a clinical psychologist and associate professor at McGill University, has been leading wellness programs for physicians and healthcare workers for the past 15 years.

She said she has also noticed changes in physician well-being since the start of the pandemic. 

“If you think about the water boiling, there were some bubbles going on before the pandemic, and now it’s past the boiling point,” she said.

Dobkin said in her work with physicians she’s seeing increased exhaustion, burnout and even PTSD. She said some also experience the feeling of ‘moral distress’. 

“To watch people die and not even have their family nearby is extremely distressing for doctors, even doctors who are used to seeing death.”

DOCTORS NEED TO CHECK UP ON THEMSELVES, EACH OTHER

According to Dobkin some doctors have a hard time listening to their bodies and respecting their own limits. While she said there are many things doctors can do to check in on their own mental wellbeing, they also need to be listened to and supported by hospitals and departments, so they have permission, time and resources for self-care.

Because many hospitals are currently overwhelmed, Dobkin said self-care exercises need to be quick and doable. Some of her suggestions include a buddy system, where doctors can check in with each other by text message a few times per day. Dobkin also suggested doctors take three-minute pauses throughout the day to check in with themselves, taking a short walk when feeling overwhelmed, and recommends thinking about a few things that went right during their day, before going to sleep at night. 

Dobkin acknowledged some hospitals have made changes to help staff during the pandemic, including emphasizing team work and providing an area where they can leave colleagues notes and share stories of things that went well. 

“The doctors' minds and bodies are all one and they can’t separate them,” she said. “You can’t put people through 12-hour days for 10 months without a break and expect them to be just well. They’re just human beings like you and I and everyone has a limit." 

HERE IS A LIST OF MENTAL HEALTH RESOURCES IN QUEBEC

People struggling with suicidal thoughts can contact the free Canada Suicide Prevention Service helpline at 1-833-456-4566 or by texting 'START' to 741741. The service is available 24/7. 

If ever you need help, don't hesitate to reach out to:

Your family doctor (if you have one)
Your local CLSC, CISSS or CIUSSS: 811
AMI-Quebec: 514-486-1448
Canadian Mental Health Association (CMHA): 514-521-4993
Centre Interligne Inc.: (for issues related to sexual orientation): 514-866-0103
Depressives Anonymous: 514-278-2130
Groupe d'entraide pour un mieux-être: (GEME): 450-332-4463
Quebec Obsessive Compulsive Disorder Foundation: 514-727-0012
Société québécoise de la schizophrénie: 514-251-4000 x3400
Suicide Action Montreal: 1 866 277 3553
Suicide Prevention Service: 1 866 APPELLE
Veterans Affairs Canada: 1 800 268-7708
If you need immediate assistance, call 911 or go to the nearest hospital.

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