Ten professions with that can make people suicidal. How do we help these essential workers?
Updated: May 14
When it comes to mental health, there are three general categories of people. There are the severely vulnerable who need help much of their lives, there are the super-humans who can absorb any and all tragedies and shake them off, and there's the rest of us. Most people fit into the last category- able to handle the day-to-day stresses for the most part, but vulnerable to big downturns or long stretches of stress and small setbacks that can drag them down into depression or worse.
We define ourselves and others by our professions. What do they do for a living? Your profession says a lot about you and your values, and it's very easy to put that ahead of everything else and find yourself in an unbalanced life. "I wish I hadn't worked so hard" was one of the top five regrets of the dying that I reviewed earlier in this challenge, and few people in their old age wish they'd spent more time at the office.
Work can be meaningful and uplifting, or it can be stressful and soul-crushing. Some of that is a matter of perspective. But there are some professions that deserve extra attention for the amounts of stress that they put on people, putting their very mental health in danger. Some roles take bright, ambitious young people and transform them into burnt-out shells of a human being, down on humanity and themselves.
There are three characteristics of careers that can destroy a human being.
1- Enormous amounts of never-ending stress, resulting in spillover to personal lives that result in lack of sleep, proper diet and exercise, fun, and relaxation.
2- Isolation, resulting in lack of friendship and camaraderie. Notice that loneliness is not the lack of people around you, but the lack of people you can turn to for help, understanding, and love.
3- Exposure to life at its worst. Dealing with death, gruesome crimes, sadness, and unpleasant people day after day.
Data on mental illness is very tricky to interpret, and there are no generally accepted lists like the one I'm about to present. Suicide rates are the tip of the iceberg, and many suicides aren't reported properly to shield the families. Depression isn't reported accurately because of stigma, but there is a lot of helpful data out there to show who's struggling the most.
With that in mind, here are ten professions that face the most mental health challenges. The data is so noisy that this is not in any particular order.
1- Mining. People in the extraction and mining field have the highest suicide rate in America according to the latest CDC study. Mining is a stressful, difficult, physical job that takes a lot out of people. Some of the stress may come from diseases associated with mining like black lung, and some of it may come from the economic uncertainty associated with the declining jobs in the industry, especially coal mining. Miners also have high rates of substance abuse, including opioid addiction, and a macho culture that stigmatizes any open discussion of mental health issues. There are precious little industry resources, but those in this field need to consult national resources like SAMHSA.
2- Construction. This is the number two field according to the CDC for suicides, which is surprising because of its generally high salaries. Again, construction work is often solitary, strenuous, and dangerous. Being seasonal and unpredictable, its feast or famine levels of work may cause mental stress during the down-times. Being a heavily male profession like mining makes it more prone to a less sympathetic workplace for mental illnesses, with stigma preventing many workers from seeking help.
The Center for Construction Research and Training has prepared a helpful list of mental health tips and resources for people in the construction field.
3- Farming. Agriculture has become a high-stress occupation, and farmers all over the globe are feeling it. Suicides are on the rise as profits fall in the face of global weather changes, increasing tariffs, and lower crop prices in many cases. Smaller farmers are facing the bulk of the pressures, and theirs is a typically male, solitary, seasonal, and unpredictable profession. Financial pressures have only increased as bankruptcies have increased, and states like Kansas have had to initiate mental health websites like this KansasAgStress.org to handle the crisis.
Another good resource for farmers is Agrability.Org.
4- Law enforcement. Police officers see us at our worst. They handle domestic disputes, gruesome traffic accidents, criminals of all types, and murder scenes. More police officers are killed by suicide than are killed on the job. Their profession has more stress than most, leading to high levels of PTSD and depression in the law enforcement field. Easy access to firearms increases risks of successful suicide attempts. Recent developments with racial tensions between the police and minorities have not helped the situation, and mental stressors play a big part in most police shootings.
Bluehelp.org is a great resource for overcoming the stigma that accompanies law enforcement officials.
5- The military. Soldiers face the highest risks of PTSD and depression of any profession, especially if they see battle. Wars, national disasters, and riots are mankind at its worst, and to have to deal with this on the job is about as stressful as it gets. The stakes are literally life and death. Even worse, veterans of military service face an elevated risk of depression and suicide for the rest of their lives. (Veterans, while 8% of the population account for 18% of all suicide deaths.) Even for soldiers who don't face any combat, suicide rates are twice that of the general population.
Here is a one-stop shop for military mental health to click on.
6- Bus and truck drivers. Driving long distances in large trucks is a stressful, lonely occupation. Truck drivers live a nomadic existence, never in the same place for very long. The lack of roots and stability adds to high divorce rates, addiction disorders, and intense loneliness. Pay for truckers has declined over the years, leading to a current shortage of drivers and high turnover rate. Suicide rates for transportation personnel, which also includes airline employees, are over double the national average.
7- Doctors. Physicians are another group who see us at the worst possible times. They lose patients to death, have to witness pain and suffering, and make literally life and death decisions routinely. Unlike nurses and other health professionals, doctors also face enormous financial pressures, since they are tasked with the ultimate responsibilities of their practices. Rates of addiction disorder, divorce, suicide, and depression for physicians are higher than for the general population. And because of their lofty status, the stigma of mental health treatment is high for doctors, causing them to put off treatment in order not to lose status or reputation.
The AMA has provided this page for doctors to reference during Covid-19 for mental health for themselves and their staffs.
8- Dentists. The dental profession is right up there with taxes as to things people prefer to avoid. Dentists see people at their most anxious, and the pain involved in their procedures is the butt of many jokes. Depression, suicide rates, and addictions are more common for dentists than the general population, and the stigma on treatment prevents many from seeking help, as happens with doctors. Dental work is high-stress and intricate physical labor requiring constant concentration. With all the high student debt of doctors and little of the admiration, dentists toil away in jobs with high levels of stress, responsibility, and financial pressure.
The American Dental Association has provided a resource page for its members seeking help.
9- Nurses and other health professionals. Even before Covid hit, nursing was a stressful profession with high turnover and mental health challenges. During the worst days of Covid- it became a crisis. Nurses are the primary contact for most hospital patients, and they witness death, suffering, and sadness while having little power to change things. They seem like superheroes, but they are human like the rest of us, and the stresses of working long hours and losing patients after making emotional connections takes its toll. Because most medical professionals, including doctors, have access to powerful drugs, they are more likely to get hooked with addiction disorders, or use medications to commit suicide.
The American Nurses Association has offered this page of resources to help with mental health challenges.
10- Lawyers. The legal profession is the butt of many jokes, and its high stress levels and long hours make for a tough profession. A 2016 bar association study showed that 28% of licensed lawyers suffer with depression, 19% have symptoms of anxiety, and 21% have drinking problems. The legal profession can be morally ambiguous, dealing with unscrupulous people at their worst, and is not always well-paying. Many lawyers are considered self-employed and have limited health insurance. And, as with doctors and dentists, the stigma is high for any lawyer found out to be getting treatment for mental health disorders.
The ABA has offered this page of help for its members regarding mental health.
Beyond these ten, all jobs and professions carry with them an element of stress, risk, and unpleasantness that can tax our limited amount of resilience. Any bad job can destroy your mental health and the best answer in many cases is to quit and move on. Unemployment carries with it some of the biggest mental health challenges of all, so it could be argued that being employed, even if in a stressful job, is better than having no job and no future. But no job is worth giving up your happiness.
All jobs carry with them the danger of stigma. Professionals are resistant to seeking help lest the word gets out that they have a problem and clients leave them. This is a continuing struggle with stigmatization, and many confidential services are available.
Other professions that came up during my research as unusually difficult for mental health included veterinarians, pharmacists, firemen, emergency medical technicians, real estate agents, finance professionals, restaurant workers, electricians, architects, entertainers, and artists. The one profession at lowest risk for mental health problems according to the CDC? Educators. (But that was before Covid turned their profession upside down).
So what can we do with this information and how can we help? If you or someone you know are in a mentally risky profession, you need to be aware of the stressors and manage them properly. Stigma or not, seek help at the first signs of depression, anxiety, or addiction that threatens your work and personal life. Seek out opinions from those you know and trust as to if they notice anything bad and take care of yourself in your career.
All of the careers on this list are vital to the running of our economy, and most, I will note, cannot be done from home. Somebody has to deal with the tough situations, and those who voluntarily take those on deserve extra help if they need it.
Life is messy, and some brave souls take on that mess so we don't have to. We owe it to them to support them, thank them, and help them when we can. The All Clear Foundation is one group that is working to support mental health for first responders, and there are many other ways to help, starting with the people that you know. Awareness of the problem is always the first step.
For a first-hand look at how hard this is, watch this powerful Ted Talk from a an expert in military mental health challenges.
The above information is provided courtesy of the author who has done his best to be factual. You are still responsible for interpreting and checking those facts elsewhere, and I make no representations that I am a mental health expert beyond what I presented. Thank you.