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Study Highlights Increased Suicide Rates Among Nurses in Norway

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A recent study published in the Journal of Affective Disorders has shed light on the alarming rates of suicide among healthcare professionals in Norway, spanning from 1980–2021. The study, conducted by a team of researchers including Helene Seljenes Dalum and colleagues from several Norwegian institutions, aimed to describe suicide rates among various healthcare educational groups compared to the general population and other graduates. The findings highlight significant occupational disparities, with particular concerns surrounding nurses and veterinarians.

The study utilised data from the Norwegian Cause of Death Registry, the National Educational Database of Statistics Norway, and the Norwegian Population Registry. It found that male veterinarians, physicians, and nurses had higher suicide rates than other graduates with higher education. Specifically, male veterinarians exhibited the highest rates (35.9 per 100,000 person-years), followed by physicians (25.7) and nurses (22.2). For females, psychologists (15.0) and nurses (9.3) showed elevated rates compared to their peers in other higher education fields​​.

Helene Seljenes Dalum, a PhD researcher from the Institute for Studies of the Medical Profession, said: “The key findings of our study was that the suicide rate among physicians had declined from the 1980s throughout the 2010s, while nurses did not have the same decline in suicide rates. From 2010 to 2021, nurses were the only group that had a higher suicide rate than others with comparable education.”

While the overall suicide rates for physicians showed a declining trend over the four decades, with the rates approaching those of other graduates with higher education, the same could not be said for nurses. Nurses of both genders maintained higher suicide rates compared to other graduates throughout the study period. This stability in suicide rates among nurses contrasts sharply with the significant declines seen in other healthcare professions.

The study’s results revealed that physicians’ suicide rates decreased significantly from 1980–2021. The decrease was particularly noticeable among male physicians, whose rates in the 2000s fell below those of graduates without higher education. Female physicians also saw a decline in suicide rates from the 2000s to the 2010s, aligning with global reviews indicating similar trends​​.

Helene further explained: “There has been increasing attention to both the stigma connected to having mental health issues and in trying to provide low-threshold counselling or advice for physicians who are struggling. Of course, since this is a register-based study, we do not know the reasons for the reduction in the suicide rates among physicians. However, efforts to reduce the stigma and negative attitudes around physician mental health problems and suicide in Norway over the past 30 years are likely to be reflected in the reduced suicide rates.”

The research also highlighted gender and age disparities in suicide rates within healthcare professions. Among males, veterinarians and pharmacists exhibited the highest suicide rates, while theologians had the lowest. Female psychologists had the highest rates among their gender group. Notably, the suicide rates among physicians increased with age, with those over 60 years old showing rates twice as high as other graduates with higher education​​.

The study discussed potential factors contributing to the elevated suicide rates in certain occupations. Access to lethal means, such as medications and substances used in medical practice, has been a critical concern, particularly for veterinarians and physicians. The stress associated with these professions, including long hours, high responsibility, and the emotional toll of patient care, likely contributes to the elevated suicide risk.

The study also noted that the increasing proportion of females in healthcare professions, particularly among veterinarians and psychologists, might influence these trends. It suggested that poor status integration into traditionally male-dominated occupations could partly explain the higher suicide rates observed among female physicians and other professionals​​.

Helene mentioned upcoming research in this area: “The next paper from the Institute for Studies of the Medical Profession is a longitudinal study further exploring suicidal ideation, plans, and attempts in physicians.”

The findings underscore the need for targeted interventions and support systems within the healthcare sector. While the decline in suicide rates among physicians is encouraging, the persistent rates among nurses and the increased risk among elderly physicians highlight areas requiring immediate attention. The study calls for continued monitoring and further research to understand the complex interplay of individual, occupational, and contextual factors influencing suicide rates among healthcare professionals.

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