By Erin Stair, M.D., MPH
Every year, 300-400 physicians die by suicide in the U.S. This statistic should make us all arc an eyebrow, considering physicians are there to save lives, not take their own.
Another study shows that one in four medical students struggle with depression and approximately 11% express suicidal ideations. The American Medical Association (AMA) has recognized that depression, burnout and other mental health struggles are serious problems among doctors and medical students and are now creating “the medical school of the future,” which improves doctor and student access to mental health care.
While I applaud the AMA’s efforts, we cannot ignore the stigma those with mental health issues face. Stigma is so strong that many individuals, doctors included, often avoid seeking help altogether. To fight this unjust stigma, I propose doctors fearlessly let their black dogs out of their bags—all professionals who have, or have had, mental health struggles should start talking.
There isn’t a lot of research on the best ways to reduce stigma, especially long-term, but the most effective technique seems to be social contact. This typically involves individuals with mental illness coming into contact with individuals without mental illness and sharing stories, burying misconceptions and cultivating an empathic understanding of each other.
Social contact, in its simplest form, begins with a conversation. By starting a conversation, professionals who’ve experienced mental health issues can easily show how anyone can struggle and anyone can recover. Mental illness doesn’t discriminate by occupation or income, nor does it have to sideline you from life.
When you think of mental illness, you probably think of someone who is disheveled, jobless, homeless or socially isolated. You don’t think of a put-together, wealthy, popular doctor, lawyer, business owner or banker. But the truth is: You can be a well-respected, highly-functioning member of society who simultaneously struggles with his/her mental health. We need to hear more of those stories.
I almost didn’t publish my book Manic Kingdom, based on my own mental breakdown, because I was afraid of being judged by the shocking and embarrassing symptoms: “Why would a good student quit medical school for no reason at all?” “How did such a smart person end up squatting in houses with a convicted rapist?” “How could she fall for obvious lies and put herself in such danger?”
In fact, if my friend Tara didn’t die by suicide, and if I wasn’t a doctor running my own wellness business in New York City, I never would have published it. Tara was a beautiful lawyer and model living in Virginia. She, like me, silently struggled with her mental health, and we regularly swapped our “dark sides” over email. I shared my book with her and she loved it; she wanted me to publish it, but I never did. I was too afraid of the societal backlash—of the stigma.
Tara took her life last June. Only then did her love for my story inspire me to dust off the manuscript, hire an editor and publish it. Perhaps it was my way of coping with her death, but sharing my story was also exactly what I needed to do to help change the narrative about mental illness. For anyone like me or Tara, it’s time to stop hiding and make contact. It’s time to realize that you’re not so different, scary, crazy or weird after all. It’s time to share your story.
Living in fear of stigma translates into struggling silently and alone. Despite my fears, sharing my story has been a wonderful and eye-opening experience, because it helped me and others feel less alone. Highly accomplished individuals (doctors, entertainers, bankers, lawyers, writers, business owners) read my book and then told me about their own struggles—many of which were similar to my own. They felt at ease sharing their stories with me, because they knew I wouldn’t judge.
To any professional who is silently struggling with mental illness: Sharing your story is not only therapeutic, it’s one of the most human things we can do. Through storytelling, you can be the person to tell someone they’re not alone. That they’re not different, scary, crazy or weird. And by sharing your story, you can encourage others to do the same.
Erin Stair, MD, MPH is a West Point graduate and the founder of bloomingwellness.com. She created ZENBands and ZENTones which many individuals use for meditation, sleep and stress relief. She runs workshops focused on self-care, holistic wellness and stress relief, and especially caters to the veteran population. She’s the chief data lead and medical writer for an international digital mental health company, and author of Manic Kingdom, available on Amazon.
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