SAN DIEGO (CNS) — Pharmacists are at greater risk than the general population of committing suicide, a fact that could be exacerbated by the COVID-19 pandemic, a UC San Diego study released Friday that focuses on the mental health and burnout in the health professions.
Researchers from the University of California’s Skaggs School of Pharmacy and Pharmaceutical Sciences and UC San Diego School of Medicine found that pharmacists commit suicide at rates of about 20 per 100,000, compared to 12 per 100,000 in the general population. The study results are published Friday in the Journal of the American Pharmacists Association.
The figures are based on data from 2003 to 2018, collected by the National Violent Death Reporting System of the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. The study authors expect the numbers to be even higher in coming years due to the additional stressors of the pandemic, and are currently evaluating more recent data.
“If we’ve learned anything from the pandemic, it’s that there’s a tipping point for healthcare professionals,” said Kelly C. Lee, one of the study’s authors and professor of clinical pharmacy at UCSD.
The study identified the most common means of suicide in this population, with 49.8% of cases involving firearms, 29.4% involving poisoning, and 13% involving suffocation. Firearm use was similar between pharmacists and the general population, but benzodiazepine, antidepressant and opioid poisonings were more common among pharmacists, the researchers found.
Contributing factors described in the report include a history of mental illness and a high prevalence of work-related problems. Employment problems are the most common feature of suicides in all health professions.
Lee said the employment issues reflected significant changes in the pharmaceutical industry in recent years, with more pharmacists employed by hospitals and retail chains than the smaller private pharmacies more common in the past. A pharmacist’s responsibilities have also increased dramatically, with greater volumes of pharmaceuticals to dispense and increasing demands to administer vaccines and other health care services.
“Pharmacists have a lot more responsibilities now, but they are expected to take them on with the same resources and compensation they had 20 years ago,” Lee said. “And with strict oversight from state and federal regulators, pharmacists are expected to operate in a rapidly changing environment with pinpoint accuracy. This pressure is difficult for any human to cope with.
Lee said future research will further assess which employment issues have the greatest impact and how the field can better respond to them. In the meantime, she advised pharmacists to encourage help-seeking behaviors between themselves and their colleagues.
“Mental health is still very stigmatized, and often even more so among medical professionals,” Lee said. “Even though we should know better, there is such an expectation to appear strong, capable and reliable in our roles that we find it hard to admit any vulnerability.
“It’s time to look at what our jobs do to us and how we can better support each other or we’re going to lose our best pharmacists,” she said.
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