Med student’s suicide shines light on epidemic among health practitioners

A 2011 photo shows the Dietl family on Kevin Dietl’s first day at A.T. Still University Osteopathic Medical School in Kirksville. From left are Diana, Kevin, Michele and John Dietl. Kevin Dietl took his own life on April 23, 2015, a few weeks before his medical school graduation. The Dietl’s story is included in a documentary, ‘Do No Harm,’ which will screen in St. Louis Oct. 15 and 16. 

By Ellie Grossman-Cohen, Special to the Jewish Light

With warm brown eyes and a playful sense of humor, Kevin Dietl was a caring and compassionate person who preferred to greet people with a bear hug over a handshake. As a promising medical student at A.T. Still University’s College of Osteopathic Medicine in Kirksville, he chose an ambitious career path as a psychiatrist so he could use his nurturing skills to help others. 

“Kevin was rated top-notch, excellent in all of his rotations, and everyone commented on his demeanor, bedside manner and his ability to diagnose and get to the source of a problem,” said his mom, Michele Dietl, a retired manager at Mallinckrodt Pharmaceutical. “He was on his way to helping so many people.”

But by the third year of medical school, as Kevin prepared for his boards, he started to change. The Parkway Central High School graduate went from an outgoing person with a passion for water sports, music, fine dining, travel and fancy socks that matched his stylish wardrobe, to being withdrawn, short tempered and clinically depressed. He told his mom he forgot how to socialize, and this was a guy who used to be the life of the party. Kevin was losing weight. Clumps of his hair fell out when he studied. His family encouraged him to get help.

Kevin’s father, John Dietl, a global account manager at DuPont, said: “Kevin said most of his classmates were depressed, and he justified it like mental illness was a normal thing. Besides, he said he didn’t have time to get help because school was too busy. When he finally agreed to see a doctor, it was under two conditions: He had to pay cash, and he had to go out of town. He was afraid to let anybody know he was struggling because it would be detrimental to his career.”

Like many medical students, Kevin suffered in silence. 

“A mental health diagnosis on his record would mean difficulty obtaining a residency and down the road in obtaining a medical license,” Michele said. “As his mom, I was stuck between a rock and a hard place, not wanting to risk everything he worked so hard for, and yet I wanted to save my son.”

Kevin’s illness made him believe that the people he cherished most were better off without him. And on April 23, 2015, he locked himself in the car in his parent’s garage and took his own life. He was 26 years old and only three weeks from graduation.

Local Jewish response 

John Dietl recalled that dreadful Thursday afternoon like it was yesterday. 

“I tried calling Kevin’s phone and when he didn’t answer, I had a feeling something was terribly wrong,” said John, who called 911 as soon as he got home because he knew something was amiss. “Michele (who had arrived along with emergency vehicles) and I stood on the lawn as police cars, firetrucks and an ambulance rushed to our house. I couldn’t move. I was in shock. There was nothing I could do to save my incredible, beautiful son. 

“At that very moment, we knew we had to do something. We promised we would dedicate our lives to helping others.” 

Ever since their son’s death, even in the darkest days, the Dietls have focused on their mantra: “To eradicate the stigma of mental illness everywhere and forever.”

The local Jewish community has supported their goal to bring awareness to suicide prevention. As an interfaith family, the Dietls turned to Rabbi James Bennett of Congregation Shaare Emeth to officiate at their son’s funeral. Hundreds of people gathered at the New Mount Sinai Cemetery to share memories of this beloved young man. 

Bennett, whose recent High Holiday sermon focused on the Jewish community’s role in helping people who are suffering emotionally, recalled Kevin as “an amazing kid.” 

 “It crushed my spirit that he and all these young people who die by suicide begin to think that they don’t matter, they aren’t worthy,” he said. “I want to do everything I can to help them.

“The medical school population is uniquely disturbing because here are kids who decide to devote their life to healing and forget that their own lives matter. Something in the system is very broken that these young people have lost their own sense of worthiness,” said Bennett, who is working with other local synagogues to help demystify the stigma often attached to addressing mental health.

Thanks to families like the Dietls, who are bringing awareness around mental illness, the Jewish community is beginning to respond, Bennett thinks. “I would say we’re not doing enough yet until we make it a No. 1 priority. Until we stop suicide, it won’t be enough,” he said.

A ticking time bomb

For the past few years, the Dietls have traveled the country to offer emotional support and share their personal story with students, professors, physicians and the public at medical schools and professional events. The couple is also featured in the documentary “Do No Harm,” which will be shown Oct. 15 and 16 at Landmark Plaza Frontenac.  

The film, by Emmy-winning producer and director Robyn Symon, examines the silent epidemic of depression and suicide among medical students and physicians. Woven into the story are interviews with medical students, senior physicians, authors, sleep experts from Harvard Medical School, and leaders from medical organizations such as the American Medical Association (AMA), Association of American Medical Colleges and Accreditation Council for Graduate Medical Education.

“Do No Harm” follows four people bonded by tragedy on a mission to expose a broken health care system that endangers the lives of physicians, their patients and all of society. A Q&A will follow the presentation both nights featuring a panel of some of the physicians and experts in the film, including the Dietls.

Each year, 300 to 400 physicians die by suicide, according to American Foundation for Suicide Prevention, though the number is believed to be higher because many suicides are reported as accidental deaths. Two in five physiciansscreen positive for depressionand mental health issues, and burnout and other stressorsare prominent across the continuumof physician education and practice, according to the AMA.

Medical students, meanwhile, are three timeslikelierto die of suicide thantheir counterparts in thegeneral population, according to datacited in an AMA Council on Medical Education report presented this year. Given the current annual physician suicide rate, more than 1 million patients are directly affected each year.

“From traveling with the film, we have found that nonmedical audiences are particularly interested and shocked at what is going on,” Michele Dietl said. “This affects all of us in regard to quality of patient care and ability to access care.Losing 400 physicians a year to suicide is like the equivalent of three medical school classes dying every year. What a tremendous loss to patients and society.” 

In addition to promoting “Do No Harm,” the Dietls are determined to make medical schools more accountable. In the movie, the couple share their heart-wrenching testimony, which led to a legislative victory. On July 7, 2017, the Show-Me Compassionate Medical Education Act was signed by Missouri Gov. Eric Greitens. The bill, which was spearheaded by Rep. Keith Frederick, R-Rolla, established a committee to study mental illness, suicide and depression in Missouri’s six medical schools. It is the first bill of its kind in the country to prohibit any medical school from restricting a study of the mental health of its students. 

“Do No Harm” also uncovers the factors that contribute to the high rate of suicide and burnout among doctors and medical students. They include sleep deprivation, isolation, loan debt, stigma of mental illness and career consequences of seeking emotional help. 

His legacy lives on

Even after his death, Kevin’s spirit continues to touch lives. 

For example, his alma mater, A.T. Still University, recently approved an endowment fund to support the Mental Health First Aid (MHFA) training certification. It is a free, eight-hour program that focuses on identifying and helping students and employees in mental health crisis, including suicide ideation, substance abuse,  anxiety and depression. 

On a recent visit to their home in Chesterfield, the Dietls openly shared their raw emotions. 

“We still have dark, difficult days, but Kevin’s passion for helping others continues to light the way for us,” John said. 

For a while after Kevin’s death, he and Michele stopped having company to their house; now, they welcome the opportunity to give thanks and share their story. 

“We as a family are strong and close,” John said. “The impact Kevin had on others resonated with so many of our friends and family. Before Kevin got sick, he always looked at the bright side, and his positive outlook continues to be the driving force in keeping it together for us.” 

In an upstairs home office, a framed diploma hangs on the wall, as does a proclamation that contains a poem written by  Frederick in Kevin’s honor. Also in the room is the crisp white lab coat that Kevin worked so hard for, even though he never got to see or wear his uniform. The words “Kevin Dietl, D.O., Psychiatry” is sewn in blue thread on a patch on the front of the coat, which was given to his parents posthumously by one of Kevin’s medical school mentors, Dr. Kimberly Perry, who is now senior vice president and chief medical officer at Kindred Healthcare. She, too, appears in “Do No Harm.” 

The white coat, which is traditionally a symbol of trust and professionalism, conjures up a bittersweet memory for the Dietls.

“A doctor wearing a white lab coat is an authoritative figure who has power to heal you,” John said. “When you realize you have an empty coat, that the human form of that individual is not filling that coat … that’s hard. I want these medical students and physicians to know it’s OK to be human.”

More than anything, Kevin wanted to heal people. His own words were quoted by one of his best friends at his funeral: “Kevin would tell us, clinically speaking, nothing makes people happier than helping others.”