Eight months after Dr. Deelshad Joomun died by suicide, about three dozen doctors in their white coats — many of them her colleagues at Mount Sinai St. Luke's Hospital — marched through the streets of Manhattan. At the site where Joomun's body was covered with a tarp on that cold January morning, the physicians, led by advocate Pamela Wible, MD, placed flowers and photos of other physicians who have died by suicide.
Dr. Joomun's death is the opening scene in Do No Harm, a documentary by Emmy award-winning filmmaker Robyn Symon, about the hidden epidemic of physician suicides in the U.S. The film, which has been years in the making, was screened at the Angelika Film Center on Wednesday and Thursday, playing for a sold-out audience each night. It delves into the harsh reality that is medical school, residency, and what Dr. Wible refers to as "assembly-line medicine," which leads to 400 doctors dying by suicide each year, a number many advocates say is grossly underestimated.
The film does not sugarcoat the issue at hand: Dr. Wible, along with other physicians, speak frankly about abuse, sleep deprivation, and how the American residency system essentially sets up doctors — and patients — for failure.
One of the heartbreaking stories featured in the film is that of Kevin Dietl, a young man who died by suicide in 2015 just weeks before he was set to graduate from A.T. Still Kirksville College of Osteopathic Medicine in Kirksville, MO. After his death, Dietl's parents John and Michele lobbied for legislation that would require the state's medical schools to keep track of and make public the amount of students at their institution experiencing depression and anxiety.
There were moments in the film where audience members audibly gasped — and to Symon, that is the sound of the cover being ripped off of a problem hidden by stigma for far too long.
"There was a lot of frustration, there were a lot of tears because it's hard to change institutions," Symon said of the reaction to the film. "I'm really proud that so many doctors showed up."
Symon told Refinery29 she showed the film to Mount Sinai leadership and received a lukewarm reaction. "'Thank you very much for sharing the film. Good luck with it,'" was their response, she said.
There are two types of institutions, according to Symon: "We have schools and hospitals that want change and really have the best interests of their students at heart but are essentially stuck in a toxic culture, and then you have those who are in complete denial and fear any kind of change and how it might affect their bottom line."
The film has also launched a petition demanding the Accreditation Council for Graduate Medical Education (ACGME), the body that regulates residency programs, to reduce the number of hours doctors can work each week, in addition to increasing the number of residents in programs and offering confidential psychological support.
Symon said the film is being screened internationally and hopes for it to get picked up by American television and streaming services later this year.
Refinery29 has reached out to Mount Sinai for comment and will update this story when we hear back.