Distressing Facts About Distressed Therapists, Part 1

The Silent Killer

Distressing Facts About Distressed Therapists, Part 1Psychologists and therapists in general are an interesting population. Many of them are committed to the difficult task of helping people achieve healthy emotional goals. They seem to be a satisfied bunch; a significant number of these professionals make their own hours, become fairly independent of systems and make adequate money.

And yet, what little data has been produced in research shows that a surprisingly large number of these professionals are depressed and become suicidal.  In fact, the reports that do come out indicate that women psychologists and therapists are in a higher risk category than male psychologists for depression, suicidal ideation and suicide.

One would think that the organizations and associations that psychologists belong to in a professional capacity would be alarmed about this situation and taking notes? This question was posed to the psychologist Dr. Nathan.

From P. Nathan. Ph.D., University of Iowa:

The American Psychological Association APA), hasn’t released any relevant data (on distressed  psychologists who commit suicide) since about 1970. Why? The APA doesn’t want anyone to know that there are distressed psychologists. (Peter Nathan, Ph.D., is a former member of an APA committee on “troubled” psychologists).

What is the APA hiding and why should female professionals in the mental health field  be very concerned?

The only published data—now nearly several decades old—on actual suicides among psychologists showed a rate of suicide for female psychologists that’s three times that of the general population, although the rate among male psychologists was not higher than expected by chance.1

The Broad Lens

In general terms and through a broad lens, the suicide rate women across the country for ages 45 to 64 jumped by 63 percent. For men in that age group, suicides rose by 43 percent, states Katherine Hempstead, senior adviser for health care at the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation, in an article in The New York Times.

In England, the following statistics are cause for alarm: women are the highest risk group for mental health problems, according to new data ; one in five women reported a common mental disorder such as anxiety and depression in 2014 compared to one in eight men, according to the survey of Mental Health and Wellbeing.

Young women also have high rates of self-harm, post traumatic stress disorder and bipolar. Mental health charities said the figures showed nothing had improved. Post-traumatic stress disorder was seen in 12.6% for women of that age compared with 3.6% of men.  Rates have steadily increased in women and remained largely stable in mensince the last survey in 2007.

Looking at physicians (psychiatrists), mental health professionals kill themselves at an abnormally high rate, according to psychologist David Lester, Ph.D., director of the Center for the Study of Suicide,

Indeed, highly publicized reports about the suicide rate of psychiatrists led the American Psychiatric Association to create a Task Force on Suicide Prevention in the late 1970s. A study initiated by that task force, published in 1980, concluded that “psychiatrists commit suicide at rates about twice those expected [of physicians]” and that “the occurrence of suicides by psychiatrists is quite constant year-to-year, indicating a relatively stable over-supply of depressed psychiatrists.” No other medical specialty yielded such a high suicide rate.

A number of surveys, conducted by Guy and others, reveal some worrisome-some statistics about therapists’ lives and well-being. At least three out of four therapists have experienced major distress within the past three years, the principal cause being relationship problems. (Guy & Liaboe, 1985).

More than 60 percent may have suffered a clinically significant depression at some point in their lives, and nearly half admitted that in the weeks following a personal crisis they’re unable to deliver quality care. As for psychiatrists, a 1997 study by Michael Klag, M.D., found that the divorce rate for psychiatrists who graduated from Johns Hopkins University School of Medicine between 1948 and 1964 was 51 percent—higher than that of the general population of that era and substantially higher than the rate in any other branch of medicine.2

The Narrow Lens

The literature on psychologist suicide is not new but is consistently cited. One of the earliest studies and one still highly recommended, conducted on this topic was by Steppacher and Mausner (1973); they found that from 1960 to 1969 suicide rates amongst male psychologists were slightly below that of the general population, but that female psychologists had suicide rates nearly three times that of the general population.3

Studies are rare that have explored the prevalence of mental health problems among psychology graduate students. There have been studies of symptoms, however: A 2009 APA survey found that 87 percent of psychology graduate students reported experiencing anxiety and 68 percent reported symptoms of depression. Even suicidal thoughts — with a prevalence of 19 percent — were relatively common.

“The numbers suggest we’re certainly not immune [to mental health problems],” says Phil Kleespies, Ph.D., a psychologist with the Department of Veterans Affairs Boston Healthcare System in West Roxbury, Mass., who co-led an inquiry on suicide risk among psychologists…. “Having a doctorate in psychology doesn’t necessarily mean that you’re going to be able to deal with your own personal depression.”

Distressing Facts About Distressed Therapists, Part 1
  1. Steppacher and  Mauser. SUICIDE IN PROFESSIONALS: A STUDY OF MALE AND FEMALE ……/436.full.pdf []
  2. Suicide Compared to Other Causes of Mortality in Physicians. Authors Michael J. Klag MD, MPH, First published: April 2005 Full publication history  DOI: 10.1521/suli. []

Margaret Altman, LCSW, MSW

Margaret Altman is a crisis intervention specialist and has intervened in many explosive situations within jails, emergency rooms, suicide prevention centers and psychiatric units. She is a featured writer on the Mad in America website and has more more than 35 years of experience as an LCSW in psychiatry, corrections and private practice. Her book, "Developing Your Child’s Emotional Intelligence" is on Amazon. Margaret currently focuses on issues of minority and marginalized populations in order to give them a voice in the mental health domain.


APA Reference
Altman, M. (2016). Distressing Facts About Distressed Therapists, Part 1. Psych Central. Retrieved on July 6, 2020, from


Scientifically Reviewed
Last updated: 11 Oct 2016
Last reviewed: By John M. Grohol, Psy.D. on 11 Oct 2016
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