From the Journals

Nurses or physicians: Who are at highest suicide risk?


Female nurses are at significantly greater risk of dying by suicide than physicians in findings that contradict previous research suggesting doctors are at greatest risk.

exhausted nurse sitting on floor in hospital pondsaksit/Getty Images

Results of a large retrospective cohort study show that nurses of both sexes were 18% more likely to die by suicide, compared with individuals in the general population. In addition, compared with female physicians, the suicide risk among female nurses was 70% higher.

“The main takeaway is that the risk of suicide among nurses is twice that of the general population and even higher than that among physicians, a population known to be at high risk,” lead author Matthew Davis, MPH, PhD, associate professor, department of systems, populations, and leadership, University of Michigan, Ann Arbor, said in an interview.

The study was published online April 14, 2021, in JAMA Psychiatry.

Focus on physicians

Compared with the general public, health care workers are at higher risk for suicide, but most studies of suicide have focused on physicians, Dr. Davis said.

Although “there were several older studies hinting that there might be a difference in suicide risk among nurses,” the data were insufficient to “make an overall conclusion,” he noted.

For that reason, his group “set out to make the best estimates possible” by using a large dataset from the National Violent Death Reporting System of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention spanning the years 2007-2018 and focusing on suicides by individuals aged 30 years and older (n = 159,372 suicides).

Additional workforce data were acquired from the Bureau of Labor Statistics and the Association of Medical Colleges State Physician Workforce Data.

An important area of focus was method of suicide.

The reason we looked at this is because people who work in healthcare have easier access to medications and know how to use them to overdose, which also increases their risk,” Dr. Davis said in a press release.

Enormous job strain

The researchers identified 2,374 suicides among nurses, 857 suicides among physicians, and 156,141 suicides in the general population.

Compared with the general population, nurses who died by suicide were more likely to be women, less racially diverse (non-Hispanic White), and more likely to have been married.

exhausted nurse sitting on floor in hospital pondsaksit/Getty Images

Rates of suicide were higher among nurses than among the general population, with a sex-adjusted incidence for 2017-2018 of 23.8 per 100,000 versus 20.1 per 100,000 (relative risk, 1.18; 95% confidence interval, 1.03-1.36).

The difference between suicide rates among female nurses and among women in the general population was even more striking: In 2017-2018, the suicide incidence among nurses was 17.1 per 100,000 versus 8.6 per 100,000 in the population at large (RR, 1.99; 95% CI, 1.82-2.18).

“In absolute terms, being a female nurse was associated with an additional 8.5 suicides per 100,000 (7.0-10.0), compared with the general population,” the authors reported.

In contrast, overall physician suicide rates were not statistically different from those of the general population (RR, 1.01; 95% CI, 0.79-1.30) except during the period 2011-2012 (11.7 per 100,000; 95% CI, 6.6-16.8 vs. 7.5 per 100,000; 95% CI, 7.2-7.7).

Clinicians of both sexes were more likely to use poisoning and less likely to use a firearm, compared with individuals in the general population who died by suicide. For example, 24.9% (23.5%-26.4%) of nurse suicides involved poisoning, compared to 16.8% (16.6%-17.0%) of suicides in the general population.

Toxicology reports showed that the presence of antidepressants, benzodiazepines, barbiturates, and opiates was more common in clinician suicides than suicides in the general population.

Dr. Davis suggested the higher risk for suicide among nurses, compared with physicians, might be attributed to “high job demands – for example, nurses provide the majority of bedside care, work long shifts in stressful environments, and have less autonomy.

“Health care workers and friends and family of health care workers need to be aware of mental health issues and suicide risk that can be associated with the job and, most importantly, recognize those who may be struggling and encourage them to get help by calling the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline,” he said.

Other potential contributors include “avoidance of mental health services due to stigma and greater access to the means to commit suicide via medication,” Dr. Davis noted.


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