We Need to Talk About Nurse Suicide Risk Rates

Nursing is a taxing career, both physically and emotionally. Caring for patients who are extremely ill or battling chronic or terminal illnesses can be traumatizing, but nurses are expected to keep calm and carry on with their responsibilities each day.

The stress, anxiety, and depression associated with this profession can grow overwhelming at times, causing many nurses to reach burnout or experience intense emotional turmoil. In fact, a recent study found that nurses are at higher risk of suicide than the general population.

While it may be uncomfortable to talk about suicide risk for some people, it’s important to understand the ways to support your nursing staff and help contribute to preventing nurse suicide in your own health care facility.

What Contributes to Nurse Suicide Rates?

The study on nurse suicide found that both male and female nurses are at a much higher risk for suicide compared to their counterparts in the general public. There are many contributing factors that have impacted suicide rates among nurses, including the following.

High Turnover

In 2019, the nursing turnover rate in hospitals was 15.9%. Additionally, nearly 18% of new nurses resign from their first job during their first year and a third leave within two years. It’s a common saying in the nursing field that the first year is the hardest, and many nurses don’t make it through.

Nursing turnover is often associated with insufficient staffing, patient violence, and other workplace stressors. The desire to switch jobs or facilities so early on in their career is a clear indication that many nurses are dissatisfied in their careers, leading to high stress and early burnout.

Patient Violence

Patient violence against health care workers is gradually getting worse and not better. Patient violence makes up for 80% of serious violent incidents that led to time away from work in health care settings.

Assaults can be verbal or physical in nature, and many incidents go unreported. A study of Minnesota nurses found that only 69% of physical assaults and 71% of non-physical assaults were reported, while another medical center found that only half of both types of assaults were reported. 

Perhaps this is in part due to how common these occurrences are, as many nurses simply shoulder the abuse rather than seeking help. Dealing with violence and feeling unsafe on a regular basis, especially without the proper support, can be toxic to a person’s mental health. 

But speaking up isn’t easy, especially if the victim doesn’t feel safe to do so at their facility, either because they feel administrators won’t have their back or they’ll be ridiculed or disciplined. 

Negative Work Culture

A positive workplace culture is important in every industry, but it’s especially crucial in a health care setting. Nursing is an emotional career and can often be overwhelming, and working with a supportive staff and managers can alleviate some of the pressure and stress.

Unfortunately, many health care facilities are understaffed, causing nurses to work long hours. Additionally, patient-to-nurse ratios are often much higher than they should be, leading to an increased risk for medical errors and patient mortality. 

Add these concerns to an already stressful profession, and it’s no wonder nurses face physical and emotional burnout.

Workplace Bullying

Bullying is a major concern in nursing, and it can start as early as nursing school. In fact, 78% of nursing students reported experiencing bullying in nursing school in the span of just six months, and over half of nursing students witnessed or experienced nurse-on-nurse bullying during clinical rotations.

After school, it doesn’t get much better. About 60% of nurses leave their jobs within the first six months of nursing due to the behavior of their coworkers. Victims of this type of bullying are of all staffing levels, including management. This causes nurses to feel unsafe and insecure in their roles, which can be taxing on their mental health.

Patient Suffering and Mortality

In many specialties, it’s inevitable that nurses will care for patients who are battling a traumatic illness or dying. It can be excruciating to watch someone suffer and only be able to help so much.

Experiencing this type of agony second-hand as a caregiver can perpetuate anxiety, guilt, and depression among health care workers. In some cases, nurses may feel responsible when a patient passes away, taking the blame and carrying it with them — even after their shifts end.

4 Ways to Prevent Nurse Suicide in Your Facility

For the sake of your health care workers’ mental health, consider implementing these practices to better support your staff and proactively prevent incidents of nurse suicide or suicidal thoughts.

1. Know the Risk Factors

There are many risk factors of nurse suicide, as mentioned earlier. However, as a manager in a health care facility, it’s important to recognize the prevalence of these factors in your workplace. 

The first step is to address common stressors like violence, bullying, burnout, stress, and depression rather than normalizing them. Show your nurses you care about and support them, so they feel comfortable reporting issues or voicing concerns sooner rather than later.

2. Offer Screening

Sometimes, nurses don’t even realize the amount of emotional stress they’re under, as it becomes their “normal.” 

Screening can be beneficial for identifying red flags. By allowing your nursing staff to answer questions (anonymously) that are predictive of suffering mental health and suicidal ideation, you can better understand their risks and offer the right resources to combat them.

3. Create Proactive Programs

When addressing the risk of suicide among staff, proactivity is especially important. You don’t want to wait until your nurses are suffering to offer help and support. Rather, create programs that help prevent these issues from developing in the first place. 

Examples include emotional crisis counseling, emergency hotlines, and even support groups within your facility for nurses to join and share their struggles. Such programs can really make a difference in reducing the likelihood of suicidal thoughts.

4. Enforce Workplace Anti-Bullying Policies

Workplace bullying is an ongoing issue that needs addressing. Such bullying can be patient-on-nurse or nurse-on-nurse, and both contribute to a hostile work environment. If you’re turning a blind eye to this prevalent issue, you’re only enabling and reinforcing it.

Just because you don’t witness the bullying first hand doesn’t mean it doesn’t happen. Enforce anti-bullying policies and offer an outlet for nurses to report harassment or bullying of any sort. 

Be sure to follow up on these complaints and take action against the issue so your workers feel supported. There should be zero tolerance for such behavior in the workplace.

Nursing work is tough, but it shouldn’t be made tougher by a hostile work environment or a setting where nurses feel unsafe to seek help. Help prevent nurse suicides by being proactive in your facility to help your nurses succeed in their careers.