A Philosopher's Blog

Doctor Suicides

Posted in Medicine/Health by Michael LaBossiere on April 30, 2008

One unfortunate statistic is the suicide rate for medical doctors: 300-400 per year. Interesting, the ratio between male and female doctors is 1:1 in regards to suicide. In contrast, the ratio in the general population is 4(male):1(female).

To break it down even more, the suicide ration of male doctors to other males is estimated to be 1.4:1. For women, the results vary from study to study, but a commonly cited figure for female doctors to other females is 2.3:1.

One common hypothesis is that the higher suicide rate is due to untreated depression (see ‘Doctors Who Kill Themselves”, by David Noonan, Newsweek April 28 page 16). While male doctors seem to be depressed at the same rate as non-doctors, they tend (as noted above) to commit suicide more often. female doctors have, based on some studies, twice the rate of depression of female non-doctors.

While one would think that doctors would be more likely to seek treatment because of their education, the opposite is true-they tend to avoid treatment. The main reason seems to be that they fear the impact of such a diagnosis: loss of respect, income and perhaps even their medical license. As such, a doctor is more likely to simply try to deal with depression on their own and hence are more likely to commit suicide than those who seek treatment. Doctors also are more likely to succeed in their attempts-their medical knowledge serves them well in this regard.

Another possible factor is one that is not commonly discussed in this context: the fact that doctors tend to have lower empathy. This has recently been supported by studies but has long been known to philosophers and the English. To be specific, in writing on the rights of animals, Immanuel Kant noted that doctors were not allowed to sit on English juries because their hearts had become hardened. This reduced degree of empathy can be harmful for the patients and a greater degree can be beneficial. This, of course, seems obvious: someone who has more empathy will work better with others, be more inclined to truly help others, and also be more effective in getting the patient to cooperate.

In addition to the effects on patients, it also seems likely that having little empathy would also have an effect on the doctors. A person who is lacking in regards to empathy is less likely to be able to establish healthy relationships that can provide the support needed to mitigate or deal with depression. Such a person is probably more likely to feel isolated and hence also more likely to give in to depression. Further, it seems possible that a person who who has less empathy will have less of a “feeling” as to how their suicide can impact others and hence might be more inclined to end his/her own life.

Fortunately, awareness of the problem of doctor empathy in the medical and academic community is growing. If the proper steps are taken, this might also help reduce the number of doctor suicides.

In addition to the general matter of suicide, the above findings are also interesting in terms of gender. To be specific, while male and female doctors kill themselves at the same rate, the same is not true in the general population. This seems to suggest suicide rates are influenced more by factors other than gender, such as profession. The gender difference in the general population could thus be explained by the differences between the jobs that are traditionally male dominated and those that are traditionally female dominated. Another factor worth considering is the empathy factor-perhaps the medical profession does a more thorough job of crushing empathy than other professions. Women, it is often claimed, are more empathetic than men and hence would be affected more by the damping of their empathy. This would help explain why female doctors kill themselves at rate of 2.3 to 1 relative to the general female population. In contrast, the impact is less on males (the ratio is 1.4:1)-perhaps because men are less empathetic or generally have their empathy dampened throughout life.

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4 Responses

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  1. tf said, on April 30, 2008 at 6:38 pm

    Great post. It brings to light something that, well, I’ve never known about until now.
    A lot of the hypotheses you mentioned make sense.
    Do you know what profession has the highest suicide rate?

  2. Michael LaBossiere said, on April 30, 2008 at 8:35 pm

    The general consensus seems to be that medical professionals have the highest suicide rate. However, the statistical data is somewhat incomplete.

  3. Asur said, on June 28, 2010 at 6:15 pm

    Since I didn’t see it directly mentioned in your post or the other comments, I wanted to point out that frequent exposure to suffering and tragedy does two things: 1) It causes us to put up emotional walls to protect ourselves from the pain empathy here inflicts on us, and 2) Habituation to circumstances like these causes them to seem more ‘normal’ and thus affect us less and less.

    Really, rather than telling doctors they need to develop more empathy toward the sick, we should develop more empathy for those who work under such emotionally damaging situations in order to help us.


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