A study released Monday by UC San Diego researchers found that nurses are at higher risk of suicide than the general population, and prevention programs are needed.
In what was characterized as the first national study of its size, the researchers at the University of California San Diego School of Medicine and UCSD Health, Department of Nursing, found that the statistic holds true for both male and female nurses.
“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,” said senior author Judy Davidson, a registered nurse and research scientist at UC San Diego.
“Female nurses have been at greater risk since 2005 and males since 2011,” she said. “Unexpectedly, the data does not reflect a rise in suicide, but rather that nurse suicide has been unaddressed for years.”
Suicide is the 10th leading cause of death in the United States. According to the World Health Organization, one person dies by suicide every 40 seconds. Overall mortality rates are falling in the United States, but the suicide rate is rising.
In their report, Davidson and her colleagues found that between 2005 and 2016, female nurse suicide rates were significantly higher (10 deaths per 100,000 people) than the general female population (7 per 100,000).
Men, who commit suicide at a far greater rate than women, had even more drastic numbers, with 33 per 100,000 male nurses dying by suicide compared to the general population (27 per 100,000).
“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,” said 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.”
According to the university, UCSD has successfully tested a suicide prevention program called the Healer Education Assessment and Referral program, or HEAL, which provides proactive screening focused on identifying, supporting and referring clinicians for untreated depression and/or suicide risk. The program has been acclaimed as a best practice in suicide prevention by the American Medical Association.
“To achieve success, suicide prevention programs for nurses should be anonymous and have a proactive screening process,” said Rachael Accardi, a HEAR therapist and study author. “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.”
Since 2009, more than 500 program referrals have been made for clinicians to mental health professionals. About 40 nurses per year, many in crisis, have communicated with counselors, often anonymously through the website and always confidentially by email, phone or in person, according to the researchers.
“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,” said Davidson, who co-chairs a task force for the American Nurses Association to address nurse suicide.