A study published in american psychologist examined psychologist suicide rates between 2003 and 2018, identifying 159 cases of psychologist suicide in the National Violent Death Reporting System. Psychologists accounted for approximately 5% of suicides across ten different healthcare professions in 2018.
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Globally, there are 700,000 suicide deaths per year – that is, approximately 1 every 40 seconds. Between 2000 and 2018, suicides increased by 65% in the United States. Some groups, such as healthcare professionals, are at higher risk of committing suicide compared to the general population. However, there are conflicting results regarding suicide among psychologists. For example, some studies have identified higher rates of suicide among psychologists compared to the general population, and others have reported no differences or lower rates of suicides among psychologists.
In this paper, Tiffany Li and colleagues specifically examined suicide rates among psychologists compared to other health professions, referring to 2003-2018 data in the National Violent Death Reporting System. Other health professions examined included dentist, advanced practice registered nurse, nurse, pharmacist, physician assistant, non-psychiatric physician, psychiatric physician, psychologist, social worker, and veterinarian. We identified 159 psychologists with a doctorate, including retired or unemployed psychologists. Related occupations such as counselor or therapist were excluded.
Half of these deaths occurred after 2014, with the majority (ie, 34 deaths) occurring in the year 2018. Two-thirds of reported suicides were men, and the median age of the deceased was 56.3 years; deceased women were slightly younger than men, with 43% under 50. About 40% of the deceased were married, in a civil union or stable union, while 30% were divorced. The majority of the deceased – 92% – were white. Approximately 36% of cases occurred in the southern states, while 25% and 20% occurred in the western and midwestern states, respectively.
At 34%, firearm use was the most common method of suicide, followed by asphyxiation (28%) and overdose (26%). In 70% of the cases, there was no suspicion of alcohol use at the time of the suicide. While 55% of the deceased had mental health issues, of these individuals, 43% sought treatment, while 47% had a history of treatment. Depression/dysthymia and anxiety accounted for 43% and 12% of diagnoses, respectively, while alcohol and substance use problems accounted for 8% of reported problems.
Psychologists accounted for about 5% of the 688 suicides among all ten healthcare professionals in 2018, comprising the fifth largest group, following nurses, social workers, doctors and pharmacists.
A limitation of this work is that the true incidence of suicide among healthcare professionals is likely to be underestimated. In some cases, the deceased’s occupation may not have been reported. In addition, there may be confusion regarding different types of mental health professions, leading to incorrect occupations being entered for some deceased.
The authors conclude, “At the most basic level, healthcare worker suicide highlights the importance of being alert, caring for, and caring for colleagues whose distress may put them at greater risk than they appear.”
The study, “Suicides of Psychologists and Other Health Care Professionals: Data from the National Violent Death Reporting System, 2003–2018,” was authored by Tiffany Li, Megan L. Petrik, Rebecca L. Freese, and William N. Robiner.