The Medical School’s first-ever suicide awareness conference aims to create a supportive community for all.
Lynette Charity, MD, taking on the role of a flight attendant, stood before the passengers of Lecture Hall 160 in The Warren Alpert Medical School and exclaimed, “Put on your oxygen masks, everyone! Save yourself first!”
In the aviation industry, the phrase “you can’t help others before yourself” is commonplace. But it doesn’t carry enough weight in health care and science, Charity—an anesthesiologist turned motivational speaker and stand-up comedian—told her audience at the Medical School’s first-ever suicide awareness conference on Sept. 20. The half-day event featured interdisciplinary panel discussions on various topics related to mental health, movement workshops, and a closing reflection and remembrance ceremony.
The event underscored the Division of Biology and Medicine’s commitment to the well-being of students, trainees, faculty, and staff. Dean of Medicine and Biological Sciences Mukesh K. Jain, MD, in his opening remarks, praised the Division’s chief wellness officer, Kelly Holder, PhD, who has introduced numerous changes since her arrival at Brown in 2021. These include one-on-one check-ins with first-year medical students, regular wellness programs, and a designated number of days off for medical students without requiring an explanation. Jain also shared that the Medical School is considering adding a 10th Ability, “maintenance of personal well-being and self-care,” to the existing nine core competencies used to evaluate students.
Holder organized the conference, motivated by some of the sobering statistics related to mental health in health care: one in four medical students reports symptoms of depression; nearly 400 physicians die by suicide each year.
“This is a hard topic,” Holder said. “I’m hoping that not only do people leave inspired and think about the things they want to do in their own areas, but they will continue to have these conversations and push for advocacy and change that we need to make in our community to make our community safer and we can decrease stigma and keep more folks alive.”
Many current medical students attended the conference, along with faculty, staff, and other community members. Two attendees flew from California to attend: John and Jennifer Ruddell, parents of Jack Ruddell ’17 MD’21, who died by suicide in 2020.
“We’re here because Jack would want us to be here,” Jennifer Ruddell said. “If Jack were alive today he would be supporting this. It is so important to get the word out and talk about well-being and strength and taking care of yourself.”
ADDRESSING SYSTEMIC ISSUES
One driver of suicide in health care is the concern that mental health care will jeopardize medical licenses and credentials, according to J. Corey Feist, JD, MBA, founder and CEO of the Dr. Lorna Breen Heroes Foundation, who addressed the audience via Zoom. The foundation is working to reduce burnout among health care professionals and raise awareness about mental health while advocating for licensing and credentialing reform.
In a breakout session on the licensure process, Lauren Allister ’97, MD, a pediatric emergency medicine physician and Brown Emergency Medicine’s director of wellness, said a colleague compared the mental health questions on licensing applications to getting a DUI, saying, “this will be on my record forever.”
At another session focused on medical students, Clinical Professor of Medical Science Edward Feller, MD, emphasized the importance of distinguishing burnout from depression and the risks of misidentifying one for the other. “It’s easier to say, ‘I’m burnt out,’ than to admit, ‘I’m depressed.’ There’s no stigma attached to burnout,” Feller said.
Internal medicine resident Kirsten Loscalzo MD’22 RES’25 said many of her colleagues now take prescription mental health medications despite not needing them before. “We need to destigmatize taking drugs, getting help, seeking help, to be a better provider,” Loscalzo said.
In response to an audience question about how the Medical School is addressing systemic issues that contribute to high rates of student mental health problems, Praveen Rajaguru MD’23, MPH, and Victoria Briody ’15 MD’24 explained measures in place to encourage work-life balance and wellness, though they added that challenges still remain regarding stressors such as licensing exams and long hours.
During a discussion about microaggressions and reporting mechanisms, Vanessa Britto ScM’96 RES’89 F’91, MD, the University’s executive director of Health and Wellness, recalled her years as a student and trainee.
“While we’re still imperfect, we are far better now,” Britto said. “People don’t tolerate that stuff anymore.” She added that she and her colleagues are working hard to ensure no one is afraid to speak up: “Our future rests on building a strong pipeline of people who care. That’s what medicine needs the most: good human beings.”
Near the end of the day, John Ruddell said he found assurance that Medical School and hospital leadership collaborated to make the conference a success. “To see the efforts underway and the changes being made, most importantly the tone of the talk, which I think is the telling indicator of whether there is a real commitment to these programs and these efforts around student wellness,” he said. Since the Medical School’s suicide prevention walk and memorial event that the Ruddells attended last year, John added, “We’ve seen such growth and such change.”
The day’s events concluded with closing remarks by Holder and a powerful reflection and remembrance led by Brown’s chaplain, Rev. Janet M. Cooper Nelson, who invited attendees to share the name of someone in the medical field who died by suicide and light a candle in their honor. As participants gathered around the table illuminated by numerous candles, they were united by both grief and a shared determination to drive change.
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