Doctors and nurses 'most likely to commit suicide'

Health Editor,Jeremy Laurance
Thursday 28 September 2000 00:00 BST

Nurses and doctors are more likely to take their own lives than anyone in Britain, show figures disclosed yesterday.

Nurses and doctors are more likely to take their own lives than anyone in Britain, show figures disclosed yesterday.

The Liberal Democrats, who obtained the figures, said doctors were almost twice as likely to take their own lives and nurses were at 50 per cent greater risk. But 90 per cent of nurses are female and when compared with the female population, their suicide rate was almost four times the average.

Nick Harvey, Liberal Democrat spokesman on health said: "These shocking figures show being a doctor or nurse carries a unique risk of suicide. It is tragic irony that when you commit yourself to saving and caring for the lives of others, you appear to be more likely to take your own life."

A total of 342 nurses committed suicide in the six years to 1998, a rate of 11 per 100,000. Among doctors, 146 took their own lives between 1991 and 1998, a suicide rate of 13.5 per 100,000. The average suicide rate is seven per 100,000 but among women it is three per 100,000. The Liberal Democrats said the figures were based on statistics supplied by the British Medical Association, the UK Central Council for Nursing and Midwifery and the Office for National Statistics.

But the figures were challenged yesterday by an expert at the Office for National Statistics. Sue Kelly, who published a report on suicide by occupational groups in Population Trends in 1998, said doctors and nurses did have high suicide rates but, for nurses, it was not as high as four times the population. "I can't support that at all," she said.

The true suicide rate in the general female population aged over 15 was 5.6 per 100,000, higher than the three per 100,000 cited by the Liberal Democrats. In her study, nurses had a suicide rate 37 per cent above the population between 1991 and 1996. Among doctors, the rate was 47 per cent above the average for male practitioners and almost three times higher (185 per cent) for female practitioners.

The pressures of stress and isolation cause depression and to drive some people to take their lives, but for the medical professions, access to the means of suicide also increases the risk. Farmers, who tend to lead isolated lives and have access to guns, have traditionally had high suicide rates, as have vets with access to drugs.

Health professionals, including doctors, nurses, pharmacists, therapists and ward orderlies all have higher than average suicide rates because they work in a stressful environment in which there is ready access to drugs.

Dr Kelly said: "Occupations with high suicide rates are dominated by the medical professions. It is not just access to the means of committing suicide that counts but knowing how to use them."

A survey conducted by Nursing Standard magazine, published yesterday, found 69 per cent of nurses who reported depression blamed work for their illness. A total of 229 nurses completed a questionnaire of whom 80 per cent had had time off work for their illness ranging from two to six months. Nineteen had stopped working.

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