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After losing med student son to suicide, Chesterfield parents turn to advocacy

Kevin Dietl, left, poses with his mother in a family photograph.
Durrie Bouscaren | St. Louis Public Radio
Kevin Dietl, left, poses with his mother in a family photo.

John Dietl knew that his son, Kevin, was experiencing depression. He pleaded with him to get help.

"He did. But he said under one condition; we’ve got to pay cash, and 'I’ve got to go out of town,'" Dietl recalled recently, as he sat at his kitchen table with his wife in Chesterfield. "[He said] 'I can’t let anybody know I’m struggling with this, because it’ll be detrimental to my career.''"

Kevin Dietl, a bright medical student with brown eyes and a passion for water sports, took his life last year, just weeks before he would have graduated from A.T. Still University’s College of Osteopathic Medicine in Kirksville. He was 26.

Since then, John and Michele Dietl have dedicated themselves to a national campaign seeking to raise awareness about suicide among doctors and medical students.

Every year, 300 to 400 physicians die by suicide, according to the American Foundation for Suicide Prevention. Deaths of medical students are much harder to estimate, because they aren’t recorded in a central location.

“It’s just appalling that now, finally, we’re talking about it. It’s the dirty little secret nobody wanted to talk about,” Michele Dietl said. “We didn’t know about it, and Kevin thought he was all alone."

Michele and John Dietl in their home in Chesterfield.
Credit Durrie Bouscaren | St. Louis Public Radio
Michele and John Dietl in their home in Chesterfield.

But there were trouble signs.

When she told her son he seemed to be overwhelmed,  she was struck by his reply: "Well, everyone in my class is depressed. We're all sleep deprived. We're all staying up all night. It's supposed to be hard."

Michele Dietl knows studying and practicing medicine is difficult. But she and her husband say someone needs to recognize the toll it can take.

That's starting to happen.  There is a growing movement among medical professionals to focus on the mental health of doctors and doctors-to-be.

A petition to ask the professional associations of U.S. medical schools and residency programs to track student and physician suicides — and enact policies to prevent them — now has about 75,000 signatures.

After Kevin Dietls' death, his alma mater established a Student Well-being Task Force to try to  improve the culture of medical education and reduce stress among students.

His parents are determined to ensure that more is done.
Hoping to help others recognize symptoms of depression and burnout among their loved ones, they opened their home to a documentary film crew that plans to release a film about physician suicide called “Do No Harm.”
John Dietl speaks to classes of medical students regularly, urging them to reach out for help.    
“It’s OK to be human,” he said.

Follow Durrie on Twitter: @durrieB