Suicide rates soar among female providers

“The rate of suicide among women employed in any health profession was higher than for women in other occupations; the difference was statistically significant for women employed as nurses or medical practitioners.”  A new national study of suicide in Australia, published in the Medical Journal of Australia, documents this disturbing trend among female health professionals.  The study’s conclusion? “Our results indicate the need for targeted prevention of suicide by health professionals.”

A summary of the study’s findings:

  • In the general population, the suicide rate for men is nearly four times that of women.  But for female health professionals, the suicide rate is comparable to that of male health professionals.
  • The suicide rate documented was: 6.4 per 100,000 for female medical practitioners; 8.2 per 100,000 for female midwives and nurses; 4.5 per 100,000 for other female health professionals; 2.8 per 100,000 for women in other occupations.
  • At a rate much higher than women in other occupations, female health professionals chose self-poisoning as their method of suicide.  This is particularly true for those with prescribing abilities.
  • The suicide rate among health professionals with ready access to prescription medications was 62% higher than among professionals without such access.

What does this mean for you, the female provider?

Many recent studies have shown that being consistently overburdened with work can take a toll on our health and lifespan. It may not be surprising then that women who are in high-stress jobs that require long, unpredictable hours, like many jobs in the health field, may experience a dip in their mental health. It is important to be aware of this potential and be educated on the signs of depression.You aren't “weak” or “just having a bad day” if you are consistently feeling unlike yourself; many times there is something else going on. There is no shame in reaching out to a friend or therapist if you are finding yourself feeling upset or sad for several days in a row about something you cannot shake off, or if you start to have thoughts of self harm. Sometimes, when you find yourself taking care of others all day, you forget that the first person you are supposed to care for is yourself.

What does this mean for you, the male provider?

As a health provider, you know that it is necessary to break confidentiality if someone is speaking or thinking of harming themselves or others. This, of course, stays true with your fellow co-workers, but many times they aren't going to make it that easy for you to know that they are hurting. If someone in your workplace is struggling with depression, be an advocate for them. Look out for signs of depression or mentions of contemplation suicide. A dark joke in the break room can be a masked cry for help.

What does this mean for you, the employer?

Some employers have joined in the trend of offering employee counseling services, giving their employees support with both workplace stressors and personal problems without having to leave the office.  These counselors are typically employed by or contracted through the employer’s organization, and they are paid by the employer – not by those receiving counseling.  They can be an excellent tool, if trusted and utilized by employees, and they typically provide prompt, easy-to-access, affordable (read: free to the employee), face-to-face support. 

The question here, however, is: can workplace counseling help arrest the alarming female provider suicide rate?  And, what are the consequences of sharing – will it be the demise of the woman’s career, embarrassment among her colleagues?  The American Psychological Association describes suicide as a typically “transient and treatable” condition, so the immediate accessibility of counseling may be critical.

Resources:

Allison J. Milner et al, Suicide by health professionals: a retrospective mortality study in Australia, 2001-2012, Med. J. Australia (Sept. 2016), available at https://www.mja.com.au/system/files/issues/205_06/10.5694mja15.01044.pdf.

Lisa Firestone, Suicide: What Therapists Need to Know, American Psychological Association Education Directorate, https://www.apa.org/education/ce/suicide.

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