Men are several times more likely to attempt suicide than women.

Men are several times more likely to attempt suicide than women.

Earlier this year, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, a US government department, released a list of the professions in which suicide was the most prevalent. Here, in order, was the top five:

  • Dentists
  • Pharmacists
  • Physicians
  • Lawyers
  • Engineers

A different result arose when a study into suicide was conducted in the UK, with the results published last year in the Psychological Science journal. What makes the British study interesting is that it compares changes in suicide over the past three decades. In the early 80s, the most suicide-prone workers were veterinarians, merchant seafarers, hotel porters, pharmacists and hospital porters. The most recent figures show the top five are now:

  • Coal miners
  • Merchant seafarers
  • Labourers in building trades
  • Window cleaners
  • Artists

According to Suicide Prevention Australia, almost one in five suicides in this country are presumed to be work related. 

Similar statistics in Australia are unavailable, so it could be different here again. But it’s nonetheless worth taking a look at the factors that might explain why some people in some jobs are at greater risk than others.

The British study, the results of which can be found here, show that one reason for those rankings could be that men are several times more likely to attempt suicide than women, which explains why so many of the top five professions are in male-dominated industries.

Perhaps more tellingly, in previous decades, rates of suicide among certain professions were associated more with the jobs in which people found it easier to get access to the materials they needed to perform their unfortunate final act. But, these days, the landscape has changed markedly.

In the British study, the researchers found something in common among the occupations in which the rate of suicide had risen by more than 40 per cent. These include coal miners, plasterers, forklift drivers, stevedores, construction workers, and even butchers. Those industries have been contracting, in the UK at least, and this brings with it a host of anxieties, such as the stress of finding new employment and the difficulty in adjusting to significant change.

There are two more factors worth considering, as articulated by the British scholars. One is that social isolation at work is a suicide risk, and the other is that some occupations tend to attract high-risk workers.

So, how does that contrast with the United States, which produced a significantly different top five list? It’s worth looking at the prevalence of suicide among dentists, which has plagued the industry for years, and has been dismissed by many as a myth perpetuated, I guess, by articles like this one.

Two years ago, researchers at the University of Nebraska looked into this further. They disagreed with the findings. They questioned, for example, the methodology used to gather the information, such as the small sample sizes. That, combined with the relatively few people working in dentistry, distorted the data. Fair enough.

They concede, though, that there are some stressors, not necessarily unique to the dental industry but certainly a big part of it, which may contribute to the higher rates of depression and suicide. These include the management of a solo practice, the dissatisfaction some patients have with their treatment, and the tendency to work long hours without taking a break.

All three factors (if you were to substitute the word ‘patients’ with ‘clients’) could apply to many professions. According to Suicide Prevention Australia, almost one in five suicides in this country are presumed to be work related. This includes stress, workplace arguments, retrenchment, performance pressures, job dissatisfaction, long hours, and more.

If you have a colleague or an employee at risk, they suggest you should:  

  • Express acceptance and concern.
  • Encourage them to talk.
  • Refer them to a specialist.
  • Provide as much flexibility as possible.
  • Eliminate stress or hazards that might make the problem worse.

Because, if they overcome it, they might realise, to paraphrase Ernest Hemingway, that life does get swell again after the hell is over.

Do you work in any of the professions mentioned above? What are your views?

SuicideLine: 1300 651 251

Lifeline: 131 114
Mens Line: 1300 78 99 78

beyondblue.org.au

Follow James Adonis on Twitter: @jamesadonis