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Project seeks to shed light on disparate suicide rates in a high-stress profession

Project seeks to shed light on disparate suicide rates in a high-stress profession

Picture of William Huntsberry
https://flickr.com/photos/bendaviesphotography/30400453032/
https://flickr.com/photos/bendaviesphotography/30400453032/

A 21-year-old woman was struggling with anxiety and depression. She also worked in a highly specialized, high-stress profession. Her doctors were so worried about her they issued directions she should not undertake certain responsibilities in her workplace without prior medical approval.

Several months later, her superiors asked her to undertake those duties anyway. Days later, she died by suicide. 

A later investigation found no evidence the woman’s superiors asked for the medical approval they’d been directed to seek. (I’m withholding the name and occupation of the woman in order to keep my project confidential, while I work on it in the coming months.) 

Suicide rates in the United States have been rising for nearly 20 years. But for some groups the rate has been climbing faster than others. My project for the 2021 Data Fellowship will examine disproportionate suicide rates among men and women within this highly specialized profession. 

Young men within the profession are anywhere from 10% to 50% more likely to commit suicide. Women of all ages are also at significantly greater risk of taking their own lives, my research shows. 

My project will also expose cases of negligence — using investigative case files obtained by family members — in which officials knew there was a risk and did not protect against it. I will attempt to discover the extent to which these cases of negligence contribute to disparate suicide rates. 

My project will utilize documents, on-the-ground reporting, and data to present a full picture of this complicated problem. 

I’ll spend time with people in this line of work as well as their family members. I’ll talk to them about the unique stressors and work culture they face, as well as the differing experiences of men and women, to try to understand why suicide rates vary among different groups within this profession. 

To gather the data I need, I’ll use publicly available death certificates in San Diego County, as well as various reports that have addressed the issue. I’ll also use census data to create population estimates and CDC Wonder data to pull comparable suicide rates in the broader U.S. population. 

As I know from the families I’ve already talked to, suicides forever change the lives of family members left behind. Most have told me that they learned to go on living their lives, but they never heal. 

It’s vitally important to recognize work environments that contribute to increased suicides, in order to protect families from unnecessarily going through such a traumatic loss. In cases where leaders have been negligent, it’s also important they be held accountable. This project will seek to accomplish both tasks. 

If you or someone you know is considering suicide call 1-800-273-8255.  

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