Scientists and suicide

suicide symbolsWhy do some scientists kill themselves and can such suicides be prevented?

Clearly it can be hard or even impossible to tell from the outside what things may be like on the inside for anybody whether they are a scientist or not.

Last year the world of science, and in particular the stem cell and developmental biology fields, were stunned when noted RIKEN scientist Yoshiki Sasai committed suicide. At least in part that death was linked to the STAP cell fiasco.

More recently the CEO of Cambrian Genomics, Austen Heinz, died of suicide as well some time in the last two months. There are no concrete details on this death and no public indications of a reason for the suicide. An obituary can be read here.

I interviewed Austen and posted the discussion on this blog just a few months back. The focus was on Cambrian and his enthusiasm for human genetic modification. I viewed Austen as a very confident scientist working on cutting edge research who was unafraid to push the boundaries to the extreme. I was surprised and very sad to learn that he had taken his life.

Many scientists over the centuries have committed suicide (see partial list here on Wikipedia).

A 1990 study of scientists who committed suicide (why only male?) concluded that they faced intense stress and for some it was too much leading to the suicide. Coverage of that study in The Scientist noted a few key reasons thought to be linked to scientist suicide:

“The leading contributing factors were: isolation, 50 percent; physical illness, 47 percent; politics as both a precipitating and background factor, 42 percent; and depression (sometimes hereditary), 31 percent. The percentages add up to more than 100 because most suicides had more than one cause.”

Minor contributing factors were defined as the following:

“Minor precipitating factors were: death of a close relative, 17 percent; overwork, 14 percent; business or legal problems, especially common among inventors, 11 percent; grant problems, 8 percent; problems with the administration or boss, 3 percent.”

What do you think are the most important factors?

Of course women scientists commit suicide too and at one point it seemed that women chemists were far more likely than their male colleagues to kill themselves.

Scientists of any gender or age can find themselves in a pressure cooker of stress. Could the perception that a higher proportion of scientists are shy have any role or is scientist shyness a myth? For some if there is a perception of being outside the stodgy norm for almost any reason that stress can be strongly amplified. Some scientists who committed suicide in the past had faced discrimination of various kinds such as for race or sexual orientation. The amazingly gifted 20th century scientist Alan Turing may have committed suicide after being persecuted for a relationship with another man.

Can anything be done to make a positive difference?

There’s not a whole lot of compassion in the community of science for scientists as actual people. I’m not sure if there’s a way to change that. It would be helpful if there were less stigma for scientists who have mental health issues. Science needs more resources available to scientists who may feel in a particularly hopeless situation at a certain time with nowhere to turn.

More research on suicide by scientists is needed as well. Remarkably there are almost no scientific articles on suicide by scientists. For instance, see this PubMed search result, which yielded just 4 articles out of the >23,000 with the title word “suicide”. So we are pretty much in the dark in terms of scientist suicides, trends, causes, and such. It seems to be one of those taboo topics that in reality needs more open and thoughtful discussion.

If you are feeling possibly suicidal, please look for help. For instance, you can contact the National Suicide Hotline in the US at 1 (800) 273-8255, toll-free, 24/7, in both English and Spanish.

5 thoughts on “Scientists and suicide

  1. interesting to note that the Aurora CO shooter, James Holmes, was enrolled in a neuroscience PhD program.

  2. This was an extremely touching article. Very perceptive and so well researched. This topic has never entered my purview–the high concentration of deaths amongst scientist. When I read the background on Austin Heinz and considered his accomplishments along with his awesome smile and good looks I was filled with grief and tears. It reminds me of how important our interactions with other can be. I will go out and ‘hug’ my fellow scientist for at least the next few days and keep the hug in mind. Thanks for bringing the topic light.

  3. Why do scientists commit suicide? For many of the same reasons that people in other jobs do. I am shocked and saddened to hear of Austen taking his own life….He looked like such a happy and nice young man in his photos, and it is always a tragedy to lose one so young. I am also very saddened by the Sasai suicide, as well. I certainly extend my sympathies and most heart-felt condolences to any and all who knew them and are left in the aftermath. My heart goes out to you all.

    What we should consider, though, is that depression so severe that it leads to suicide is an illness, and I would like to encourage anyone who reads this and is considering taking their own life to think about this. There are many treatment options available, and, I believe, our society has come to realize that depression is an illness, not something to be lightly dismissed. A depressed person is not “defective” or “weak”, they are simply suffering from an illness that can -and should- be treated. Every one of us is precious beyond measure, more than we ever fully realize, and I do strongly encourage anyone who might be “in a bad way” to please seek professional help as this is something that CAN be beaten. Know that, if you think no one cares about you, you are wrong…..I DO.

  4. My response is similar to Mike’s. I don’t mean this to seem facetious or callous, but I think a major takeaway should be that scientists are human, and have the same problems that everyone else does. Suicide is far more common than most people realize (if you’ve not had personal experience, check CDC or any state’s mortality stats). It’s always tragic, always incredibly painful and bewildering for the survivors, and not always preventable. Some scientists – and non-scientists – may believe they don’t need help or even intentionally shun it, and sometimes the best we can do is try to have greater awareness, which may be cold comfort.

  5. Thanks for noting this. I’ve been googling ‘postdoc’/’scientist’ + ‘depression’/’suicide’ for a while now. Not because I’m there, but just wondering (things I’ve heard thirdhand) if it might be worse than it seems. Obviously, I’m not objective.

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