The most important thing a colleague or family member of a depressed physician can do is to provide hope and to encourage a suffering physician to seek prompt diagnosis and treatment. Mental health experts studying physician depression and suicide have stressed that immediate treatment and occasional confidential hospitalization of suicidal physicians can be lifesaving, even moreso than in other populations. Yet a depressed physician will frequently resist professional intervention because of well founded fears about confidentiality, licensure challenges, loss of income, and loss of collegial esteem.
So a depressed physician should be counseled that almost all states and provinces maintain physician health programs (see PHPs) which are insulated from licensing authorities. A physician who is compliant with treatment can in many states check "no" on the mental health questions on licensure applications. An article about these programs is here.
A depressed physician, whose thought processes are clouded because of the illness and the anticipated consequences of seeking treatment, may believe that self-treatment is the only safe option. Nothing could be further from the truth. Failure to obtain consultation and professional treatment of depression significantly increases the risk of physician suicide.
A quick survey, the PDQ-9 can help you assess or self assess the potential for depression in physicians. (NB: this is only a guideline and NOT a validated diagnostic tool) The Texas Medical Association has published an excellent online document "Recognition of Potential for Suicide" specific to physicians.
Encouraging Treatment in Depressed Medical Professionals Physician's Weekly 9/19/2005
Suicide in Physicians: Towards Prevention Medscape 5(4) 2003
Today I'm Grieving a Physician Suicide a colleague remembers a friend lost to suicide Annals of Family Medicine (6) 267-269 May 2008
Physician Suicide A poignant article by a physician spouse of a physician who completed suicide
This Forbes article by Matthew Herper, in the immediate wake of Robin Williams' suicide, contains many helpful tips about suicide prevention that are applicable to everyone.
Many of the articles in the References section will also be helpful to those who care about a physician who seems depressed.