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U.S. Health Care Workers Are At Risk For Suicide

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By Columbia Mailman School of Public Health

Health care workers, including registered nurses, health technicians, and health care support workers, are at increased risk of suicide compared with workers in other fields, according to a new study by researchers at Columbia University Mailman School of Public Health and Vagelos College of Physicians and Surgeons. Until now little was known about suicide risks of the approximately 95 percent of health care workers who are not physicians. The findings are published in JAMA.(link is external and opens in a new window)

“Our results extend earlier research from outside the United States that health care workers compared with non-healthcare workers have greater risks for mental health problems and long-term work absences due to mental disorders,” said Mark Olfson, MD, MPH, professor of Epidemiology at Columbia Public Health and professor of Psychiatry, Vagelos College of Physicians and Surgeons. “The importance of increased suicide risk of health care support workers is underscored by their growth from nearly 4 million in 2008 to 6.6 million in 2021.”

To estimate death by suicide rates among U.S. health care workers, the researchers evaluated a nationally representative cohort from the 2008 American Community Survey including 1,842 000 workers who were observed through 2019. Olfson used modeling techniques to compare rates of suicide for health care workers to other employed adults accounting for differences in their background characteristics. Participants 26 years of age and older were studied.

Suicide rates were estimated for six health care worker groups—physicians, registered nurses,other health care–diagnosing or treating practitioners, health technicians, health care support workers, and social/behavioral health workers, as well as non–health care workers. 

The analysis showed suicide rates per 100,000 person-years of 21 for health care support workers, 16 for registered nurses, 16 for health technicians, 13 for physicians, 10 for social/behavioral health workers, 8 for other health care–diagnosing or treating practitioners, versus 13 for non–health care workers. 

A recent paper by Olfson published in the Annals of Internal Medicine found that registered nurses, social workers and other behavioral health workers, as well as those in health care support are at significantly greater risk for drug overdose death compared to non-health care workers.

The new report also found that health care work overall is more strongly associated with suicide risk among female than male workers. This finding raises the possibility that gender differences in health care work roles, job satisfaction, and occupational stress may contribute to the proportionately greater risks of suicide faced by female than male healthcare workers than non-health care workers.

Co-authors are Candace M. Cosgrove, U.S. Census Bureau; Melanie M. Wall, Columbia Mailman School of Public Health; and Carlos Blanco, National Institute on Drug Abuse. 

The study was supported by the National Heart, Lung, and Blood Institute and National Institute on Aging interagency agreements with the U.S. Census Bureau.

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