The Changing Face of British Suicide

By Neuroskeptic | October 31, 2012 9:13 am

Which jobs are at the highest risk of suicide?

In a fascinating new study, British researchers Roberts, Jaremin and Lloyd show dramatic changes over time. 30 years ago, the worst occupations for suicide were the medical professions. Now, it’s blue-collar workers, with coal miners topping the list.

They used official records of UK suicides, comparing 1979-1983 and 2000-2005. Here’s the key data (their graphs, my colours)

In the 80s, veterinarians were the most suicidal of all jobs; by 2005, they’d dropped off the Top 30 list entirely. Other healthcare professions, like pharmacists and dentists, likewise disappeared after being high on the rankings.

On the other hand, the most dramatic rise in suicide was among coal miners. They went from #29 to #1, and their rates rose about fourfold. This is not that surprising considering what happened to British coal mining during the 80s…

In general the Top 30 in the 1980s had plenty of white collar workers like engineers, chemical scientists and photographers.

Twenty years later, all of the collars had turned blue. Coal miners were joined by labourers, builders, gardeners, butchers, and others. Strikingly there are no ‘professionals’ on the modern list, with the interesting exception of musicians and artists (a reflection of the mental illness-creativity link?)

What’s more, the correlation between socioeconomic status and suicide rates increased sharply over time. Suicide is now much more of a class issue than it was in the past.

The only constant in this sad picture was the sea: merchant sailors had the #2 spot in 1980, and they kept it in 2005, with the rates almost unchanged. However, this should be taken with a pinch of salt, because the way British suicides at sea are recorded is a bit unusual.

ResearchBlogging.orgRoberts SE, Jaremin B, and Lloyd K (2012). High-risk occupations for suicide. Psychological medicine, 1-10 PMID: 23098158

CATEGORIZED UNDER: history, mental health, papers, politics
  • Jean-Marc Liotier

    Artists have risen to the top five in the 2001-2005 period, but musicians were recorded at seventh position in the older era sampled. So I would guess that the psychologically unstable artist cliché remains constant – it is just the categorization that shifted.

  • omg

    Something to do with insurance coverage perhaps. From my understanding coal miners and high risk professions sign their rights away. Coal miners are not alllowed to go to a regular hospital, has to be special clinic for coalminers, they have them all over the world these clinics. An accident for suicide to avoid compensation issues.

  • Murat Demirta?

    I think the data seems to be related to how each job involves social isolation both in 80's and now. Decline in participation to trade unions (or being part of any social identity related to socio-economic status) might be relevant to these shifts in the suicide rates. I don't know about how these things are in UK, but I can hypothesize – for example – more pharmacists might be working isolated (self-employed, involved in night shifts..etc) before; today they might become regular white-collar workers in companies as in any other similar profession.

  • Neuroskeptic

    Murat Demirta?: That makes sense.

    The authors say that the earlier high rates in health professions may have reflected that they had easy access to means of suicide (drugs to OD on).

    However that doesn't explain why their suicide rates have fallen. They still have that access.

    Given which it maybe doesn't it explain it in the 80s either.

  • omg

    Worker's rights and social isolation makes sense. Back in the day health sectors didn't have Microsoft, they would've spent hours in the lab sorting through data. Not only do healthcare workers have more rights now due to better policies, they're networked intranet/internet : better communication.

  • omg

    If they digitalized the mining industry so it's less labor intensive and more a simulated tonker experience while you browse Facebook in a control unit with no need to be physically present in the mine or drilling away, then I bet suicide rates in the mining trade industry could equalize like others.

    Having said that I remain skeptical to the legitimacy of suicide cases among miners. I've met miners a few times before and they looked to be mostly immigrants who don't speak English contrary to the anglo blokes you see in mining news/documentaries. Like plucking a factory worker from China and putting them in a foreign mine. Socio-cultural / demographic changes in professions could be effecting rates as well.

  • Anonymous

    The obvious question is what happened in the 1990´s, and with the introduction of SSRI´s

  • Neuroskeptic

    Well, overall suicide rates fell during the 1990s and 2000s across the developed world.

    There's some evidence that they're bouncing back up now due to the recession.

    See e.g. here

  • Daniel S. Goldberg

    Social conditions as fundamental causes of disease. Link & Phelan's theory expressly posits the development of new mechanisms that link social conditions — especially class status — to adverse health outcomes.

    Thus 150 years ago one of the major mechanisms was sanitation, which of course was unequally distributed in British and American societies. As sanitation proliferated, L&P suggest that other mechanisms come into play that drive the social gradient of health. This study demonstrates one such mechanism.

  • John

    A few weeks ago I looked at suicide rates across decades and there exists a strong correlation between economic indicators and suicide, which is kinda obvious. In one Australian study that covered from circa 1910-1990 that trend held good all the time, with men being especially suspect(bread winners).

    The artists and musicians link may simply reflect that most artists and musicians struggle to make a living, placing them in the same bracket as the coal miners. To expend so much effort for art and music with such little odds of making, to then have to find other employment. Yeah that's gotta hurt.

    Did they adjust for the number of people in each industry over the time periods?

  • Neuroskeptic

    “Did they adjust for the number of people in each industry over the time periods?”

    Yes; they also adjusted for age.

    They didn't adjust for gender, but males account for the bulk of the suicides. If you look at the males and females separately, the picture for males is pretty much the same as the overall one.

    For females it's rather different with lots of white-collar occupations in the top 30 in both time periods, but the rates are much lower.

  • Andrew Oh-Willeke

    Could the high medical professions numbers in the older data set have something to do with UK specific events in its national healthcare system being reformed that created a pool of big losers relative to pre-reform days?

  • pj

    Of course you have to wonder how biases in exposure to events that might lead to open verdicts (e.g. potential industrial accidents in manual workers) and instability in denominator/numerator with consequent mismatch in careers with rapid expansion/contraction over time (e.g. the large number of unemployed ex-miners might well be registered as 'coal miner' on their death certificate while the denominator of actually working coal miners will now be very small due to the complete destruction of the mining industry) might play a part in this.

  • Ivana Fulli MD

    Do not forget that autopsies are not the fashion anymore

    – unless they are psychological autopsies of course…

    But the later do not answerthe question mark on the physical cause of the death.

  • E

    Suicides at sea should be taken with a pinch of salt? No pun intended I hope.

  • Neuroskeptic

    Oh. Heh. That wasn't intended.

  • pfk

    Would anyone care to explain, even shortly, what exactly is unusual about recording British marine related suicides?

  • E

    Another group rising rapidly to the top of the pile will be returning servicemen.

    However as most of these will have long since left the armed services some time previously and many of those will be dying of drug and alcohol related illnesses they will not be registered as “service personnel” and not even as suicides.

  • Neuroskeptic

    pfk: The paper says it's complicated because of stuff like where the death is recorded (deaths on the high seas / foreign ports might not be recorded in Britain) and how to determine suicidal intent (e.g. if someone drowns for no apparent reason).

  • pfk

    My fault I guess, I'm not interested in the subject deeply anough to read the paper. Thanks for the answer!



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Neuroskeptic is a British neuroscientist who takes a skeptical look at his own field, and beyond. His blog offers a look at the latest developments in neuroscience, psychiatry and psychology through a critical lens.


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