Resilience: Our only remedy?

Mena Mirhom, MD

Resilience is like patience; we all wish we had more of it, but we hope to avoid getting it the hard way. This wasn’t really an area of interest for me until it needed to be. When one academic year brings the suicide of one colleague and the murder of another, resilience becomes the only alternative to despair.

I realize that even though the particular pain or trauma we endured may be unique, it’s becoming increasingly common. The alarming studies of resident depression and suicide are too difficult for us to ignore. Now we must look in that evidence-based mirror and decide where we will go from here, as a profession and as trainees. The 2018 American Psychiatric Association annual meeting gave us a rude awakening that we may not have it figured out. Even during a year-long theme on wellness, and several sessions at the meeting focusing on the same, we all found ourselves mourn- ing the loss of 2 colleagues to suicide that very weekend only a few miles away from the gathering of the world’s experts.

It brought an eerie element to the conversation. The wellness “window dressing” will not get the job done. I recently had a candid discussion with a mentor in administrative leadership, and his words surprised as well as challenged me. He told me that the “system” will not save you. You must save yourself. I have decided to respectfully reject that. I think everyone should be involved, including the “system” that is entrusted with my training, and the least that it ought to ensure is that I get out alive.

Has that really become too much to ask of our profession?

We must hold our system to a higher standard. More mindfulness and better breathing will surely be helpful—but I hope we can begin to admit that this is not the answer. Unfortunately, the culture of “pay your dues” and “you know how much harder it was when I was a resident?” is still the norm. We now receive our training in an environment where the pressure is extraordinarily high, the margin for error very low, and the possibility of support is almost a fantasy. “Sure, you can get the help you need … but don’t take time off or you will be off-cycle and create extra work for all your colleagues, who are also equally stressed and will hate you. In the meantime … enjoy this free ice cream and breathing exercise to mindfully cope with the madness around you.”

The perfectly resilient resident may very well be a mythical figure, a clinical unicorn, that we continue chasing. This is the resident who remarkably discovers post-traumatic growth in every stressor. The vicarious trauma they experience from their patients only bolsters their deep compassion, and they thrive under pressure, so we can continue to pile it on. In our search for this “super resident,” we seem to continue to lose a few ordinary residents along the way. Are we brave enough as a health care culture to take a closer look at the way we are training the next generation of healers? As I get to the end of this article, I wish I had more answers. I’m just a trainee. What do I know? My fear is that we’ve

been avoiding this question altogether and have had our eyes closed to the real problem while pacifying ourselves with one “wellness” activity after another. My sincere hope is that this article will make you angry enough to be driven by a conviction that this is not OK anymore and that we will do something about it.

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