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Family pushes for change after death of St. Paul doctor

According to some research, doctors die by suicide at a rate more than twice that of the general population.

ST PAUL, Minn. — Dr. Michelle Chestovich decided in January that she would add life coach and podcast host to her resume, in addition to family physician. Her podcast, "Re-Mind Yourself" focuses on self-care and mental health for women, especially physician moms. 

She never realized her subject matter would turn so personal. 

In March, Chestovich's youngest sister, Dr. Gretchen Butler, died by suicide. The 36-year-old radiologist was a married mother of three.

"She was really filled with joy from her children and loved them tremendously," Chestovich said. "She was just like the bright star that would light up the room."

Chestovich said her sister had been diagnosed with post-partum anxiety, but believes her job didn't help.

"We deal with death every day. We deal with telling people bad news every day," she said, "If there's not a way to process that, it just kind of burns within and it's not good for your mental health."

Suicide is not a new problem in the profession, but it's one that hasn't gone away, especially after the stress of the pandemic.

Precise numbers are hard to know, but a 2018 literature review found doctors die by suicide at a rate more than double the general population, an estimated 300-400 per year.

"Two hundred is the standard medical school class. So we're losing nearly two full med school classes every year to suicide," said Chestovich, whose two other siblings also are doctors.

Suicide among nurses also is a concern, with a recent study from the University of Michigan finding female nurses are about twice as likely to die by suicide than the general female population.

Chestovich wants things to change. She is advocating for a limit on how many hours physicians can work during one shift, and routine mental health checks on healthcare workers.

"I was yelling it from the rooftops before," she said. "Now I'm like, give me the bullhorn. Who needs to hear this? Everybody needs to hear this."

If you or someone you know is dealing with suicidal thoughts, there is hope and help available. Call the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 1-800-273-8255 or text MN to 741741. More resources can be found on the National Alliance on Mental Illness (NAMI) Minnesota website.

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