The alarming fact that 300 nurses in the UK had committed suicide in the past seven years was recently highlighted in the press. Meanwhile, there’s no data on the number of nurses taking their own lives in the US. Here the occurrence of nurse suicides seems to be shrouded in silence and denial.

Call for action on nurse suicides

Figures released by the UK Office of National Statistics (ONS) last year showed that between 2011 and 2017 more than 300 nurses had taken their own lives, and that female nurses were most at risk. The suicide rate among nurses was 23% higher than the national average.

Jonathan Ashworth, the shadow health secretary for Labour, called on the government to launch an urgent inquiry into these figures. “The health and wellbeing of our NHS staff must never be compromised,” he said. “We must care for those who care for us and our loved ones in time of need.”

The Royal College of Nursing (RCN) also reacted. “Nursing staff experience high levels of stress, a shortage of colleagues and long working hours,” stated Dame Donna Kinnair, chief executive and general secretary of the RCN. “Our members repeatedly say their employers ignore or disregard mental health issues. They feel they should cope.” She also called on the government to take note of the statistics and respond.

Family members of nurses who had taken their own lives placed some of the blame on a “bullying and toxic culture” in health services. Younger nurses didn’t ask for help with mental health issues as they were afraid that it would affect their careers.

A report, NHS Staff and Learners’ Mental Wellbeing Commission, was released in February this year, which acknowledged that nurses were among those most at risk of taking their own life. According to a spokesperson, the Department of Health and Social Care would be implementing some of the recommendations made in the report.

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Silence on nurse suicides in the US

Meanwhile, a discussion paper published by the National Academy of Medicine in the US reported that there were no local, state or national mechanisms in place to report on nurse suicides in the US. In contrast, data on suicide rates among doctors, teachers, police officers, firefighters, and military personnel were readily available.

The authors of the paper believed that suicide among nurses was more common than generally thought. Based on the lack of data and also interviews with nurses, they concluded that nurse suicide was “shrouded in silence, avoidance, and denial.” Risk assessments and prevention just weren’t possible without the necessary information.

At the School of Medicine, the University of California, a mental health program – The Healer Education Assessment and Referral Program (HEAR) was developed, initially for doctors, residents, and medical students.  It took nurse suicides, and seven years, before the program was extended to the nursing community.

The authors of the above paper reported that an extension pilot of the HEAR program found that the workplace stressors that put nurses at high risk for suicide were feelings of inadequacy, lack of preparation for their role, lateral violence, and a transfer to a new working environment.

Get help for mental health problems

Burnout, stress, and depression are common among nurses and known risk factors for suicide. Administrators, nurse leaders, and colleagues should pay attention to the health and wellness of nurses within the workplace. Help and support should be available for anyone suffering from mental health issues, and nurses should not hesitate to seek advice when needed.

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