I was on my way to work on Friday June 8th, had just closed and locked the front door to my house, and was walking to my car when a notification from one of my phone’s news apps stopped me in my tracks. Anthony Bourdain was dead at the age of 61 and had committed suicide. Many of us foodies and those of us who love to travel are familiar with his literary works and his television shows in which he took us along with him to every corner of the globe and exposed us to all manner of foreign food and culture. Even those less familiar with his work likely recognize his name and persona because he was one of today’s most recognizable cultural figures.
I didn’t fully understand why the death of a man I admired but had never met and didn’t know saddened me to the extent it did. It was partly because I’ve been a fan of his work over the past two decades and I’ve often thought if I ever had a chance to re-live my life as someone else, his life (at least the part we all saw) was the one I’d chose. But, my sadness also prompted me to wonder if I was affected in this way by his suicide, what does something like this do to the family and friends of loved ones and colleagues who take their own lives? I would imagine all too often the loved one lost was the last person who would have ever been expected to do something like that.
When I looked up the statistics around suicide, they were unexpected and a bit staggering. In 2016 suicide was the 10th leading cause of death in the US and the nearly 45,000 suicides that year were over double those attributable to homicide. Furthermore, over the past two decades, suicides have been on the rise with the highest rates among those aged 45-54 years. The thing that really catches my attention about those numbers is the age range with the highest suicide rates—it is when most surgeons are just starting to settle into a practice and are perhaps beginning to recover from the hamster wheel of residency and fellowship. Through our many years of surgical training there has traditionally been the expectation that we maintain a level of physical, mental, and emotional toughness in all clinical situations. Thankfully, the perspective of the typical surgeon is slowly starting to change as we are becoming more aware of burnout and the toll that can take on our mental well-being. But, after the many years of training we all endure and the time we spend teaching ourselves to maintain composure in the face of awful and sometimes heart-wrenching things, how open and attuned are we to knowing when a colleague or even we ourselves might be struggling through a dark time?
I’ve not personally known or lost anyone to suicide, but I can only imagine the guilt and anguish of feeling like something should have been said or could have been done to prevent it from happening. This clearly is a topic our society is struggling to address. So, while we are slowly making progress in breaking down the stigma around many of the topics that have been long considered taboo for surgeons, let us not forget that sometimes those whom you least expect are the ones that are struggling most.