September 30, 2020

The Niche

Knoepfler lab stem cell blog

Scientists and suicide

suicide symbolsWhy do some scientists commit suicide 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.

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