Surviving a Physician Suicide: Imperfect Grief and Shaping the Narrative for the Children Left Behind (part 1 of 3 with Janae Sharp)
In Part 1 of our 3-part interview with Janae Sharp—a physician suicide loss survivor and the Founder and CEO of the Sharp Index, a nonprofit dedicated to better physician mental health—Janae shares her story of loss, grief, and her call to action to start her non-profit.
She discusses how suicide loss is different from other losses, in part because it is a "messy topic," but also how grief itself is imperfect. She details the experience of telling her 3 children and why she feels compelled to create "better memories" for them. She constantly reinforces the power and complexity of humanity.
Janae is always looking for collaborators (she wants more psychiatrists!) and donors, so if you are interested in getting involved contact her at Janae@sharpindex.org. For additional information or to learn more about Janae’s work for physicians, survivors, and families please visit the following websites: Mdsuicide.com and Sharpindex.org. Find her on Twitter @CoherenceMed.
David Carreon: This is David Carreon.
Jessi Gold: This is Jessi Gold.
David Carreon: And this is Psyched!, a psychiatry podcast. Today we have Janae Sharp. Janae is a physician suicide loss survivor and the founder and CEO of the Sharp Index, a non-profit dedicated to better physician mental health.
Her main work involves health care data and analytics marketing to improve health care outcomes for the underserved. Python is her preferred code language, but her true passion is match making companies to create elegant health IT systems and to improve health.
She's worked with interoperability and social determinants of health and is an expert on patient and physician engagement. Janae has 3 children, enjoys hiking, triathlon and quilting. Janae, thank you for joining us.
Janae Sharp: Thank you. I hate writing bios as well. I feel like that's important.
Jessi Gold: Yeah, it is really important.
David Carreon: We should have added that to your bio.
Janae Sharp: Yeah.
Jessi Gold: And writing a bio was not your favorite thing to have done.
Janae Sharp: Hearing my own bio I'm always like, "That's a terrible bio. Someone should rewrite that. That poor lady."
Jessi Gold: Well, okay, so how about we start with you just telling us more about you and your story and then as much as you feel like telling us, yeah.
Janae Sharp: Oh, well, that could be pretty long, but so the story of starting the Sharp Index, I can talk about. Like it says, I have a background in health care IT, and I've worked with people creating data products and worked in social media a lot, and I am also a physician suicide loss survivor.
My former spouse, John Madsen, was a physician. He died by suicide, and we created the index actually in his memory and through my experiences with his death. We have 3 children, and I've been able to share a lot of our story and trying to create good memories and, really, how that type of loss was pretty different in terms of the support that my kids got.
It was really frustrating. I felt like people didn't really know what to say or had a lot of advice that wasn't helpful or advice that really was hurtful in some ways. And we wanted to create something that brought awareness to physician suicide but also addressed that, created a better place, and that's really our hope, to have better memories for people.
But also, the index is focused on reducing burnout. So you can look at scores and information about your burnout risk or reasons for that or mental health. And we want to create a network of peer support that's outside of your employer because when … physicians are really driven to succeed and to accomplish a lot, and that doesn't always ... You don't always want to tell your employer you're really struggling.
And in addition, people aren't always aware. If you've always been really in a work environment where you have a lot of stress and you've been a higher achiever, you aren't always aware and in touch with things that might put you at risk.
So that's been kind of my personal story is just that we had just kind of this impossible situation, and I wanted ... And when people would ask me, “What should you do? What are solutions?” I didn't feel like there was a lot out there that was focused on a realistic approach and not just doing lip service to the topic, especially since I was a family member and didn't have any of those stigmas where I can't talk about it.
I won't lose my job talking about it, so the stories that people will tell me are different than the stories that they tell their licensing committee. So, that's some of my background. Yeah, is that helpful?
David Carreon: Thank you for telling us about this. It's got to be a difficult place to be in, where on the one hand you're advocating for other people to prevent suicide or to improve health care systems, while at the same time having this have been a personal struggle for you, something that you're ... It's personally affected and been a challenge in your own life.
Janae Sharp: Yeah, it's interesting too because sometimes I do find myself getting more worked up. Like it's more personal, like people don't want to do much. I kind of feel ... I take it more personally than with other things, and that's been a challenge to find that balance of making sure you find the right people who want to help move things forward and to make sure that I'm respectful of their needs and vice versa.
So sometimes throughout the process of telling the story, I've had to take breaks, and it does take an emotional toll, but it also, I think, is really powerful, and it makes me feel like I'm giving my kids a better memory for their dad. So they know that it's important and that other kids who go through that, or people might not have to go through that because of stuff that we've done and to honor that and to work on that huge problem.
Jessi Gold: Yeah. I'd imagine that speaking to your kids about their father's death was complicated to say the least?
Janae Sharp: Oh, it was terrible. I did a terrible job. I'm like in the example. I feel like part of me doing this is I'm the example of what not to do in a lot of ways. I quit my job. I kind of fell apart. I didn't always keep it together. If I was angry, sometimes I would tell people, and that's part of grief, but I think we only want to hear grief stories when they're very cleaned up and very done.
Yeah, telling my kids, I, yeah. I tell that story where ... I told that story actually on a podcast only once, where on the ZDogg show, I said how I just screwed it up. I felt like I screwed it up because he died in a pretty graphic way, and I was in shock still.
So I just told them, I was like, "Your dad died in a fire." And I'm like, "That's probably going to be the most traumatic possible way to tell your children." And then, I kind of dropped it for almost a year, and they were going to start a counseling group that one of the requirements was you had to say that they had actually died by suicide.
And they explained that it can retraumatize a child if they feel like you've lied about how they've died, and once you have that mental health support, it's good for them to be able to work through their feelings. So I told them, but then, normally, you would just ... I had practiced saying, "His brain was sick, and then he found a away to make his body end" because my children were quite young at that time.
And they still are. Right now, they're 10, eight and six, and it's been almost 3 years, so it was a real experience kind of coming because you are also traumatized. You don't always handle things the way that is quote/unquote "best," and it's really ... You don't know what to do.
So telling my kids was ... really difficult and watching them grieve and not always being able to be as supportive as they needed. That was a really hard thing to watch and to realize about yourself that when you're in such a bad place, you're not really there for people.
David Carreon: No, and it just hard to imagine how difficult a experience that was for you, that is for anybody who has to do that, and-
Janae Sharp: I know, and you guys talk to people like that for ... They come to you. You guys are the experts, so I couldn't imagine that. I would not be good at that job. I think it's really humbling because you realize how important humanity is. Grief is something that teaches you that there are human needs that are bigger than what you should or shouldn't do or your list of to-do lists or your goals in life.
There are just some points in your life when you're kind of knocked on your feet, and you realize the power of humanity that there are things that will happen to you that will change you, but also, you can't ignore them, and you can't just put them on a checklist and go away. They'll heal on their own time.
David Carreon: I want to hear more about what you said about something like having a better memory or having your kids be able to remember things in a better light or having a better memory. How do you tell a story of tragedy well? Or how do you advise people to?
Janae Sharp: Oh, that's an interesting question. I don't know. I don't know the best way to tell a story of tragedy. For me, I didn't want to talk about such a graphic way to die without always offering support that there are people who will help you talk about suicide and thoughts of suicide, and I always tell people to be patient with themselves and to be honest as much as they can.
With John, it was frustrating not feeling like some of the people he knew were offered a lot of support, like all his classmates. They were in their residency, and it felt like they weren't really reached out to to have offer of counseling or a way to deal with those feelings.
So you might not have the prefect thing to say, and you can try to talk anyway. That's what I like to tell people a lot. Suicide and burnout, those are messy topics that we don't like to talk about because you can't always package them up in one neat little bundle and say, "This is how it's going to get better."
And talking about those messy topics is important, so I advise people and think in John's memory, we need to remember that we aren't perfect and that we are going to have to find a place to have those messy problems, where there isn't one solution, and there isn't one cause.
The more we can talk about those and connect with solutions that already exist, the better things will be for people like my kids. And it's hard for them to tell the story, too. They don't want to ... My daughter even said that the other day. She's like, "I don't want to make people feel sad or make people uncomfortable," and that's a real problem that we aren't able to deal with difficult things, and we have such a strong desire to make people feel not uncomfortable.
And I'm sure I've made some people feel uncomfortable and hope that they are patient with me or that they do what they can and make sure to protect your own ability to handle things but also we don't need to always talk about sad things, but we need to be able to accept more complexity of problems and emotions within to our narrative. We need to not just put someone into the good or bad bucket and realize how complex humanity is.
Jessi Gold: Do you think that around the time that John died, your initial reaction was to not tell people how, or did you right off the bat know that you needed to do that, and you had this somewhat of a calling, I guess you could say to not fall into the stigma and to actually say it was suicide?
Janae Sharp: It was on the news that he died, but not everyone wanted to talk about it at all, like some friends were very uncomfortable with even talking about how he died, and I wanted to be aware of the loss everyone had because that's a serious loss, and people want to go through the memories that they have and honor those.
But I also felt like the memories my children had and their experiences were more important, honestly. So I didn't know that I would speak about it at a health care conference or anywhere else, but I did know that it was an impossible experience and that I didn't find that acceptable.
I knew that I wanted to find a way to make things better. Especially in health care, where we say that mental illness is real, and we actually are trying to heal people, It doesn't make any sense to have a workforce and training experience that controverts everything we know about health.
So some of my desire to talk about it was the desire to have a voice where I felt like I was silenced when it first happened. But I didn't know for sure I wanted to talk to people about it because I'm not perfect, just like anyone else. But I did feel like it was a huge opportunity to create a space to talk about those hard things and be brave.