3 risk factors for physician suicide

Physicians struggling with thoughts of suicide are often reluctant to seek help, but new research published in General Hospital Psychiatry identified three powerful risk factors that may help identify doctors who are in danger.

Physicians were significantly more likely to attempt suicide if they displayed the following characteristics, according to a retrospective study of 141 physicians evaluated at the Vanderbilt Comprehensive Assessment Program (seven of which attempted suicide, including five who died):

  1. They were deemed unfit to practice

  2. They worked in solo practice

  3. They used anti-anxiety medications such as Valium and Xanax regularly

The reasons these factors put doctors at risk appear fairly straightforward. Being found unfit to practice, for example, can lead to a devastating loss of income, social contact and social status, noted study contributor Reid Finlayson, M.D., an associate professor of clinical psychiatry and medical director of the Vanderbilt Comprehensive Assessment Program, in a statement. Moreover, doctors in solo practice can become isolated, and don't have the same peer network of doctors in large practices or hospitals who might observe and try to help a distressed doctor.

Researchers discovered that physicians in the study who were taking benzodiazepines turned down help that was offered and continued to take the pills right up to their suicides. In addition, out of the five doctors in the study who killed themselves, three were investigated for their prescribing habits, suggesting the distressed physicians may have self-prescribed and possibly overprescribed patients.

"Our next steps are to try and find some way to predict which physicians will try to commit suicide," Finlayson concluded. "This may be a bit premature, but the next time I evaluate a physician taking benzodiazepines, I will try harder to have them detoxify. Benzodiazepine use appears to be a risk factor for suicide."

To learn more:
- see the announcement
- check out the abstract