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November 13, 2012 9:00 AM Physician Suicide

By Aaron Carroll

I’ve mentioned before in passing that physicians have the highest suicide rate of any profession. Some more details about this are to be found in a recent study, “Details on suicide among US physicians: data from the National Violent Death Reporting System“:

Objective: Physician suicide is an important public health problem as the rate of suicide is higher among physicians than the general population. Unfortunately, few studies have evaluated information about mental health comorbidities and psychosocial stressors which may contribute to physician suicide. We sought to evaluate these factors among physicians versus non-physician suicide victims.
Methods: We used data from the United States National Violent Death Reporting System to evaluate demographics, mental health variables, recent stressors and suicide methods among physician versus non-physician suicide victims in 17 states.

The results show that physicians who commit suicide are quite different from non-physicians who do the same. Non-physicians are more likely to have experienced a recent crisis or the death of a friend of family member; physicians are not. Physicians who commit suicide, on the other hand, are more likely to have had a recent job problem. Physicians are also more likely to have a known mental illness, but significantly less likely to be on a treatment, like antidepressants. Perhaps most concerning, they are also significantly more likely to have measurable levels of benzodiazepines or barbituates in their blood.

Physicians are known to self-prescribe, or have colleagues prescribe medications for them without proper diagnosis or management. Experts have called for widespread changes to improve the ways in which doctors get help for mental health problems.

The fact is that we as physicians are often bad at caring for ourselves. That, coupled with easier access to dangerous drugs, makes us more likely to commit suicide. It’s not widely discussed, but it’s real, and it’s terrible. We can do better.

[Cross-posted at The Incidental Economist]

Aaron Carroll ,MD, is an associate professor of Pediatrics and the associate director of Children’s Health Services Research at Indiana University School of Medicine.
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