SAN DIEGO — By the fundamental nature of their profession, nurses are helpers of the helpless and caregivers for those in need. Who, then, cares for the caregivers? An unsettling new national study finds that U.S. nurses, both male and female, are at a significantly higher risk of suicide than the rest of the general population.
Previous studies had noted a troubling connection between the nursing profession and suicide risk, but this is the largest national study ever conducted on the matter. The research team at the University of California, San Diego say that it is absolutely imperative that U.S. nurses have more access to suicide prevention services, as well as better overall mental health support from their employers.
“Using the 2005-2016 National Violent Death Reporting System dataset from the Centers for Disease Control, we found that male and female nurses are at a higher risk for suicide, confirming our previous studies,” comments senior author Judy Davidson, a research scientist at UC San Diego and a registered nurse, in a release. “Female nurses have been at greater risk since 2005 and males since 2011. Unexpectedly, the data does not reflect a rise in suicide, but rather that nurse suicide has been unaddressed for years.”
Between 2005 and 2016, the rate of female nurse suicides (10 per 100,000) was noticeably higher than overall female suicides (7 per 100,000). The statistics were similar in regards to male nurse suicides (33 per 100,000) and the general male population (27 per 100,000) over the same time period.
“Opioids and benzodiazepines were the most commonly used method of suicide in females, indicating a need to further support nurses with pain management and mental health issues,” says co-author Dr. Sidney Zisook, a professor of psychiatry at the UC San Diego School of Medicine. “The use of firearms was most common in male nurses, and rising in female nurses. Given these results, suicide prevention programs are needed.”
The study’s authors say that a suicide prevention program called the Healer Education Assessment and Referral (HEAR) has shown great promise in helping nurses deal with distressing developments or other issues in test trials. HEAR is centered around providing nurses with information about on-the-job risk factors that may lead to suicidal thoughts, and taking things a step further, proactive screening of nurses. These screening initiatives are focused on identifying untreated depression in nurses and other medical professionals, and providing help.
“To achieve success, suicide prevention programs for nurses should be anonymous and have a proactive screening process,” says Rachael Accardi, a HEAR therapist. “When a distressing event occurs in the hospital or clinic environment, an evaluation team should be deployed to access any psychologic needs. This is best achieved through tight organizational connections among the hospital’s experience, risk management and HR teams, who can flag an event and then deploy confidential resources.”
“It is time to take urgent action to protect our nursing workforce. The HEAR program is ready for replication at the national level to address this newly recognized risk among nurses,” Davidson concludes. “The HEAR program can be complemented with tested cognitive-based therapy resiliency skills building for maximum effect.”
The study is published in WORLDviews on Evidence Based-Nursing.