Depressing Jobs


I used to work in epidemiology.  When we were investigating cancer clusters, my job became very depressing.  I didn’t have to read patient files thankfully, but I was given lists of cancer patients to enter into a program for statistical analysis.  It would include the age of the patient, the gender, and the type of cancer; stage, original location, metastatic state, etc, and if the person had died, the age of death and ultimate cause.

I was thinking of this because the CDC released the 2016 suicide rates yesterday.  Most people don’t realize that the mortality info for that is gathered by hand.  Someone at a health department or department of vital stats in every state in the US goes through the thousands and thousands of death records for their state and compiles that information by hand…

They see the name, the age, the how, and the police information, because every state investigates suicide deaths.  And that is probably this person’s primary job in the cube farm in which they work, is to read and look at suicide reports, every day, to compile the stats for their state.

They in turn send the information to the CDC.  It is basically a giant spread sheet listing how many people committed suicide via fire arm, or hanging, or overdose, etc.  They will also get information like victim suffered from chronic illness, cancer, mental illness, etc, because that information is just as important as how the victim decided to kill themselves.

Just like when we were working on a cancer cluster investigation, if a cancer patient committed suicide and the cancer was relevant to the investigation, that information was included with the cancer cluster report I compiled.

As the suicide rate has been increasing for the last 30 years or so, that person’s job has probably become significantly more depressing.  Dealing with mortality data requires a special mindset, just like being a coroner does.  It is supposed to be names on a piece of paper, but everyone who deals with it knows those names represent a life.  Sometimes, it is hard to detach from it, especially suicides.  One cancer cluster investigation I helped with was investigating brain cancer possibly caused by a petrol company leaking toxins into ground water.  There were a lot of suicides involved with that.

For a plethora of reasons, brain cancer has a high suicide rate.  My boss and the researchers I worked with were putting in as much as eighty hours a week looking at cancer cases and mortality rates for three very long months.  It took a toll on all of us and it went beyond working too many hours.  That was the investigation that made me realize I did not want to work in epidemiology for the rest of my life.  My boss had talked to me a few times about going to college to get a degree in public health and epidemiology, he thought I would be very good at it.  I had considered it up until that point, and after that, I began to look for a new job.

So I can’t imagine compiling mortality stats on suicide victims as my primary job.  Between cancer cluster investigations, I at least got to do other things, most of it not cheery, but it wasn’t rife with mortality rates like cancer clusters…

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