Employees in certain occupations are at greater risk of suicide

Written by Monique Crane
Tuesday January 2016

There are certain professions associated with an elevated risk of suicide, including veterinary practice, medicine and dentistry. Why are these occupations more at risk of suicide? Some researchers have proposed that perhaps it has to do with the type of people that are attracted to these occupations. For example, people with particular personality traits that place them at greater risk of mental illness may be attracted to certain professions.

There are four major clusters of factors thought to link an occupational group with a greater risk of suicide. These are:

1) Demographic factors- it is understood that a higher proportion of younger males are more likely to complete suicide.

2) Internal occupational stress- the occupation is uniquely demanding and stressful.

3) Pre-existing psychiatric morbidity-people attracted to the profession have a high risk of mental illness.

4) Access to lethal means- the occupational setting provides access to guns, drugs or other means of suicide.

Skill transferability is the degree to which you perceive your set of skills to be limited in application to other occupational settings, potentially restricting occupational mobility. The problem with restricted occupational mobility is that if people wish to leave a profession that makes them unhappy they may have difficulty leaving or perceive that they are ‘trapped’. We recently investigated whether perceived low skill transferability would predict suicide-related behaviours and thoughts.We thought that a low level of skill transferability contributes to a sense of entrapment and thus potentially suicide-risk when someone desires to change professions, particularly if their current occupation causes distress.

We found that people who wished to leave their profession, but perceived a low level of skill transferability were more at risk of suicide over a 12-month period. This finding gives us some key insights into the reasons for a greater risk of suicide in some occupations. This is likely to have implications for any occupation with unique skill-sets that may limit one’s ability to transfer into a different occupation or for groups that perceive a lack of occupational mobility into other professions (e.g., older workers). However, many aspects may be related to occupational mobility concerns. For example, if a person receives high remuneration in their present occupation switching professions may mean an untenable decline in income. Thus, there may be financial factors restricting mobility.

This research has value for professionals helping people who want to change careers and students, who tend to lack relevant work experience, deciding on study options and career path. This can be particularly problematic when entry is highly competitive and external pressures to remain in that profession (e.g., family expectations) limit mobility. Educational institutions can provide students that study areas with limited mobility with opportunities to transition into other programs. Educators can play a valuable role by normalising transition and the sense of questioning around an area of study. Career guidance counselors also play a critical role in helping high school students develop an accurate understanding of jobs. Vocational counselors play an important role in informing students about the reality of an occupation, like veterinary practice, and allow students to develop this understanding so that students are able to make informed decisions about their future careers.  

Listen to a talk exploring some of our recent research on the relationship between occupation and suicide risk.


For further information see:

Bartram, D.J., & Baldwin, D.S. (2008) Veterinary surgeons and suicide: Influences, opportunities and research directions. Veterinary Record, 162, 36-40.

Borghans, L., & Golsteyn, B.H.H (2006) Skill transferability, regret and mobility. IZA Discussion Papers, No.2021

Crane, M.F., Phillips, J., & Karin, E. (2016). “I’ve been a long time leaving”: The role of limited skill transferability in increasing suicide-related cognitions and behavior in veterinarians. Journal of Suicide and Life-threatening Behavior. doi: 10.1111/sltb.12279

Gilbert, P. & Allan, S (1998). The role of defeat and entrapment (arrested flight) in depression: An exploration of an evolutionary view. Psychological Medicine, 28, 585–598.

Jones-Fairnie, H., Ferroni, P., Silburn, S., & Lawrence, D. (2008) Suicide in Australian veterinarians. Australian Veterinary Journal, 28,  114–116.

Platt, B., Hawton, K., Simkin. S., et al. (2012) Suicidal behaviour and psychosocial problems in veterinary surgeons: A systematic review. Social Psychiatry & Psychiatric Epidemiology, 47, 223–240.

Williams, J.M.G., &  Pollock, L. R. (2008) The psychology of suicidal behaviour. In: Hawton K, van Heeringen K eds. The International Handbook of Suicide and Attempted Suicide. Chichester: Wiley: 79-93