SAN DIEGO (CNS) – Pharmacists are at greater risk than the general population to commit suicide, a fact that may be exacerbated by the COVID-19 pandemic, a UC San Diego study released Friday which focuses on mental health and burnout within health care professions.

Researchers from Skaggs School of Pharmacy and Pharmaceutical Sciences at University of California and UC San Diego School of Medicine found that pharmacists commit suicide at rates of around 20 per 100,000, compared to 12 per 100,000 in the general population. Results of the study are published in Friday’s Journal of the American Pharmacists Association.

The figures are based on data from 2003 through 2018, collected by the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s National Violent Death Reporting System. The study’s authors expect numbers to be even higher in subsequent years due to the additional stressors of the pandemic, and are currently evaluating more recent data.

“If we learned anything from the pandemic, it’s that there is a breaking point for health 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. The use of firearms was similar between pharmacists and the general population, but poisoning via benzodiazepines, antidepressants and opioids was more frequent among pharmacists, the researchers found.

Contributing factors outlined in the report include a history of mental illness and a high prevalence of job problems. Job problems are the most common feature of suicides across health care professions.

Lee said job problems reflect significant changes in the pharmacy industry in recent years, with more pharmacists employed by hospitals and chain retailers than small, private pharmacies more common in the past. The responsibilities of a pharmacist have also grown considerably, with larger volumes of pharmaceuticals to dispense and increasing demands to administer vaccines and other health care services.

“Pharmacists have many more responsibilities now, but are expected to do them with the same resources and compensation they had 20 years ago,” Lee said. “And with strict monitoring from state and federal regulatory boards, pharmacists are expected to perform in a fast-paced environment with perfect accuracy. It’s difficult for any human to keep up with that pressure.”

Lee said future research will further evaluate which job problems have the biggest impact and how the field can better respond. In the meantime, she advised pharmacists to encourage help-seeking behaviors among themselves and their colleagues.

“Mental health is still highly stigmatized, and often even more so among health 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 struggle to admit any vulnerabilities.

“It’s time to take a look at what our jobs are doing to us and how we can better support each other, or we are going to lose our best pharmacists,” she said.

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