While a career in dentistry can be very rewarding, it has been characterized as being highly stressful. Though occupation alone is not generally considered a major predictor, the notion that dentists have the highest rate of suicide among professions has persisted in the general population for nearly a century. While the possibility does exist that chronic work-related stress plays a significant role, is there any truth to this long-held assumption?
The origin of the notion that dentists are particularly prone to suicide is uncertain but it seems to date back to media reports and general misinformation beginning in the 1920s. Then a series of articles in the 1960s alleged a suicide rate of 2.5 to 5.5 times higher than other white-collar workers. This seems to have resulted in the widely held belief by both the general public and within the profession itself that dentists are at greater risk.
Surprisingly, the link between dentists and suicide went unchallenged until 1975 when a study conducted by the American Dental Association showed that “data from 31 states failed to support the conclusion that dentists committed suicide at higher rates than the general population.”
Perhaps the most comprehensive study on the subject was by American oral surgeon Dr. Roger E. Alexander. In his article, Alexander concluded that “there is no consistent statistical evidence available to prove that dentists are suicide prone; in fact, most reliable data suggest the opposite.” In a detailed evaluation of a 1996 study alleging a higher rate of suicide for dentists, Alexander found that “analyses were flawed by the use of hearsay, public perceptions, assumptions and currently outdated practice information that may no longer be applicable...”
While there may be some connection, there is no reliable evidence to support that dentists are number one when it comes to suicides among professionals. A 2011 literature review also found some previous studies pointing to a higher suicide rate among dentists, yet the authors concluded that they “‘lacked the correct scientific weight.” Further debunking of the suicide myth was presented in a 2012 article entitled, “Suicide rate in the dental profession: Fact or myth and coping strategies”, which challenged previous articles pointing to increased risk.
The Center for Disease Control’s most recent report in 2016 on “Suicide Rates by Industry and Occupation” does not list dentists separately, but rather groups them in with other healthcare workers, ranking eleventh. And yet, despite the lack of any hard evidence, the myth regarding dentists being the number one suicide occupation stubbornly persists, casting a negative light on the profession. Not only can this affect the well-being of practitioners, it can also negatively influence perceptions by patients and by students considering dentistry as a prospective career.
Unfortunately, the stigma associated with suicide makes it a somewhat taboo subject, even more so for doctors and dentists who view themselves as society’s healers. Fear of damage to reputation may prevent those contemplating suicide from seeking help. Yet suicide does not discriminate, affecting all demographics.
Regardless of where dentists rank in various reports, they are vulnerable nonetheless and should not hesitate to reach out for help when facing difficult times.
Dr. Mark Grossman is a practicing dentist and likes to take a bite out of nonsense when it comes to dental issues.