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Suicide is Rampant Among Nurses. Here’s How to Make a Difference

Joelle Y. Jean, FNP-C, BSN, RN
Updated September 29, 2023
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    Suicide is a widespread problem in the nursing community. Learn more about suicide and find meaningful solutions to help nurses and nursing students.
    Nurse supporting sad nurse in hallway of hospitalCredit: Getty Images

    If you or someone you know is considering suicide, please contact the 988 Suicide & Crisis Lifeline at 988 or 1-800-273-TALK (8255), available 24 hours a day, seven days a week. All calls are confidential, and anyone can use this service. (This service was formerly known as The National Suicide Prevention Lifeline.

    • Between 2007 and 2018, nurses were 18% more likely to die by suicide than the general public.
    • Healthcare organizations are taking action to improve mental health and reduce suicide risk among nurses, nursing students, and other healthcare workers.
    • The 988 Lifeline is an underused tool for people with suicidal ideation.

    A study published in JAMA Psychiatry found that nurses had a higher risk of suicide than the general public and physicians. As the largest segment of the US healthcare workforce, the mental health crisis facing nurses today is a crisis facing all of us.

    Suicide is one of the leading causes of death in the United States. In 2018, more than 48,000 individuals died by suicide, and that number is growing.

    History of depression, other mental illnesses, and environmental factors can increase the risk of suicide and suicidal thoughts.

    September is Suicide Prevention Month. With that in mind, it’s time to help the nurses who help us. Nurses often ignore their health to care for their patients. Learn more about suicide, the growing mental health crisis within the nursing community, and meaningful solutions to help nurses.

    Nurse Suicide: A Growing Problem

    The U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention National Violent Death Reporting System reported between 2007 and 2018, nurses were 18% more likely to die by suicide than the general public. Female nurses were twice as likely to die by suicide than the general public.

    Although there are limited studies on suicide among nursing students, one Brazilian study showed that 53.3% of students had a risk of suicide, and a little over 20% were at high risk for suicide. Research has found that nursing students experience more stress and mental health illnesses than the average college student.

    At the height of the COVID-19 pandemic, about 100,000 nurses left the profession. With recent nurse strikes, the ongoing national nurse shortage, and nurse burnout, nurses are experiencing mental health crises and conditions, including:

    • Depression
    • Anxiety
    • Post-traumatic stress disorder
    • Substance use disorder

    Substance use disorder is a big issue among nurses. Healthcare workers frequently experience alcoholism. Studies show that 1 in 5 nurses will develop a substance use disorder. Also, for nurses who have died by suicide, according to the JAMA report, toxicology examination reports found substances in the blood like:

    • Antidepressants
    • Benzodiazepines
    • Opiates

    Nurse Suicide: Finding a Fix

    Research shows that most individuals who die by suicide will have visited a healthcare system in the week, month or year before their death. This is a critical time when stakeholders like healthcare facilities, nursing schools and insurance companies can play a role in creating evidence-based follow-up programs and suicide prevention programs for these individuals.

    The American Association of Colleges of Nursing (AACN) published a call to action encouraging schools to promote healthy nurses and faculty by focusing on:

    • Mental health
    • Physical health
    • Healthy lifestyles
    • Overall well-being

    The AACN also noted the high suicide rate among nurses and the distress and burnout they face. They declared a “Healthy Nurse, Healthy Nation” social movement.

    Organizations are forming meaningful programs to improve mental health and suicide among nurses, nursing students and other healthcare workers. Here are two organizations moving the needle:

    • Don’t Clock Out: The 501(c)(3) nonprofit organization was created in 2022 by nurses after the tragic suicide of their friend, Michael, a nurse. According to the website, its mission is to “advocate for nurses living with mental illness and provide a digital crisis intervention platform to members of the nursing community who are considering suicide.”
    • Debriefing The Frontline: Debriefing The Frontlines was founded in March 2020 after noticing the trauma nurses were experiencing during the COVID-19 pandemic. According to their website, their mission is to “deliver psychological first aid, sustained emotional wellness programs and continuing education (CEUs) to nurses across all specialties.”

    The launch of 988, a national suicide prevention hotline, was a solution for individuals having mental health or substance use crises to connect with counselors immediately. However, in an opinion piece, a physician suggests the number should be more accessible. A smartphone app that immediately connects to 988 would improve usage, especially for adolescents.

    Suicide devastates families, friends, and communities. The right interventions at the right time can prevent tragedy and improve the quality of life and well-being of those who need it.