A Staff Report from the Straight Dope Science Advisory Board

What occupation has the highest suicide rate?

Dear Straight Dope:

Do you know which occupation has the highest suicide rate? Is it prison guards, by any chance? Or psychiatrists?

There is an urban legend, recently repeated on Seinfeld, that dentists have the highest suicide rate of any profession. This is false. I recently spoke with a public affairs representative at the American Dental Association. They actually did a study on the subject, and found the rate among dentists is about the same as the population as a whole.

Prison guards seem to be a likely candidate, since they exist in a rather depressing environment. So do psychiatrists, since as a group, they seem to border on insanity. So which is the correct choice?

Well, it hasn't been easy to track this one, and I'm not sure I've got a definitive answer. Let's start by noting that suicide statistics are questionable at best. Many suicides are classified as "accident" to spare the family from publicity. So the statistics are only a rough indication.

I easily found statistics on the Internet about suicides by age, region, gender, and race, but very little about occupation. Actually, since suicide is the second leading cause of death in the U.S. among those age 15 to 24, probably the answer is "student", but I don' t think that's what you're looking for.

I called the library of the Society of Actuaries, thinking they'd know. The librarian said she used to work at a large psychiatric library, and that about 8 years ago, the answer was psychiatrists/psychologists/related. However, she couldnt quote me a source or cite a statistic, except what she says she knew.

A study of 24 states reported data on causes of death by occupation, for people ages 20 to 64, from 1984 to 1988, and came up with physicians, health aides, and "food batchmakers" as the three highest. Food batchmakers are at the top but only by a small (statistically insignificant) margin. Psychiatrists weren't reported separately from other physicians. I'm not sure exactly what the numbers below mean, perhaps suicides per million of active population:

Food batchmakers (241)

Physicians (222) and health aides (excluding nursing) (221)

Lathe and turning machine operators (199)

Biological, life and medical scientists (188)

Social scientists and urban planners (171)

Dentists (165)

Lawyers and Judges (140)

Guards/sales occupations were tied at 139

Tool and die makers (126)

Police, public servants (118)

So, I'd say, it's still pretty ambiguous.

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