Why do Female Doctors Have Such a High Rate of Suicide?

14 Oct 2016

sara bird

by Dr Sara Bird

Woman's head down on her desk with medication sitting in the foreground

Is the risk of suicide higher for doctors than for those in other occupations? Researchers set out to answer this question by reviewing all deaths by suicide in Australia between 2001 and 2012.

Their study revealed:

  • the rate of suicide for female doctors was more than double that for women in other occupations (6.4 per 100,000 person years for doctors, compared to 2.8 for women in other occupations)
  • compared with men in other occupations, the rate of suicide for male doctors was the same (14.8 per 100,000 person years for doctors, compared to 14.9 for men in other occupations)
  • the most frequent method of suicide used by doctors was self-poisoning, accounting for 50% of deaths.

Access to prescription medicines is a risk factor in suicide by health professionals

There are higher rates of suicide by self-poisoning among doctors than by people in other occupations. The rate of suicide was 62% higher among health professionals with ready access to prescription medicines, such as doctors, than among health professionals without such access. Women are more likely than men to choose poisoning as the method of suicide, with the lethality of self-poisoning increasing with access to prescription medicines.

Work related psycho-social stressors

Doctors experience a considerable number of job stressors which have been associated with anxiety and depression, including:

  • work-family conflict – the researchers suggest this is a significant stressor for female doctors who are combining work, family and child care responsibilities
  • long working hours
  • high job demands
  • fear of making mistakes at work
  • exposure to vicarious trauma through contact with patients and their families.

This study reminds us all of the importance of looking after ourselves and looking out for our colleagues

Support and advice is available from your GP and the Doctors’ Health Advisory Service.



Career complications and contending with uncertainty

Among the many challenges of the COVID-19 pandemic for junior doctors is how to respond to medical training impacts and career uncertainty. In this podcast, Dr Caroline Elton (a psychologist who specialises in helping doctors)and Dr Benjamin Veness (a Psychiatry registrar) share advice for coping with medical training and career delays, disruptions and unknowns.


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