September is Suicide Awareness Month, and we’re taking some time to reflect on how suicide has affected the nursing industry over the years. It’s important to remember that no group, organization, race, socioeconomic class, or industry is immune to suicide, including healthcare professionals.
According to the American Nurses Association, the odds of a nurse dying by suicide is 1.58 times greater than the general population. In a 2017 study from the United Kingdom, suicide among female nurses was 23% higher than the average for women in general and the highest among all female professionals.
Nurses often contend with high levels of stress, long working hours, and emotionally complex situations such as losing patients and comforting their loved ones. Yet, public data on the rate of nurse suicide in the U.S. remains scarce. We’ll look at the risk factors associated with nurse suicide, how to prevent it, and the stories of several nurses that have taken their own life.
Stories of Nurse Suicide
Without access to public data on the rate of nurse suicides in the U.S., tracking the number of nurse suicides can be difficult. However, we can still look to those who have lost their lives to the profession and how these incidents can be prevented in the future.
Several years ago, Rhian Collins, who worked as a nurse at Cefn Coed Hospital in Swansea, Wales, took her own life after being bullied at work. Investigators concluded that Collins took her own life after her colleagues made life “very difficult” for her. Investigating officer Sgt. Nia Lambley said in a report, “She was being cursed at, bullied, and believed she was continually given the worst shifts on the ward. This led to her becoming obsessed with her appearance and she would go to the gym four times a day.”
Collins also looked “rundown and exhausted” a month before the incident. According to investigators, she started taking slimming pills to lose weight, and she began distancing herself from others. Collins is survived by her two children and her fiancée.
Registered nurse Kimberly Hiatt, who worked at the Seattle Children’s Hospital for 24 years, took her own life after accidentally giving an 8-month-old infant too much calcium. Instead of the prescribed 140 milligrams, Hiatt gave the infant 1.4 grams of calcium chloride, the only medical error of her entire career. Upon realizing her mistake, she immediately reported the error to nearby staff at the Cardiac Intensive Care Unit. According to Hiatt’s partner, “She was devastated, just devastated.”
The mistake led to a string of unfortunate events, including the death of 8-month-old Kaia Zautner, Hiatt’s firing three weeks later, a state nursing commission investigation, and finally Hiatt’s suicide on April 3rd, 2011 at the age of 50.
These events shed light on the aftermath of medical errors and how they can affect the emotional and psychological wellbeing of healthcare providers. Records show that Hiatt had cared for Kaia Zautner several times before making the mistake. She was also close to the baby’s family, which only added to her distress. After the overdose, the family asked that Hiatt no longer look after their infant, but they did not seek retribution.
According to a recent study by Johns Hopkins, more than 250,000 people in the United States die every year due to medical mistakes, making it the third leading cause of death after heart disease and cancer. Other studies have put the number as high as 440,000. Healthcare providers often struggle with feelings of guilt and shame during the aftermath of a medical error, which may lead to or increase thoughts of suicide in some individuals.
Risk Factors for Nurse Suicide
There are many risk factors associated with nurse suicides, many of which may catch you by surprise. While many nurses may exhibit symptoms of stress and fatigue on the job, the risk factors for suicide tend to be much more specific.
Key risk factors include:
- Sudden mood swings
- Social isolation
- Previous attempts to commit suicide
- Access to means of committing suicide
- Substance abuse issues
- Past or current mental illness
- Knowledge of dosage requirements for lethal medications and toxic substances
- Personal and work-related stress
- Personal and professional feelings of inadequacy
- Lack of preparation for the role
- Lateral violence
- Adjusting to a new work environment
In addition to these risk factors, issues of race, income level, housing quality, sexual orientation, family and community relationships, social conditions, and a lack of employment opportunities can affect mental health outcomes.
Suicide Prevention Strategies for Nurses
So, what can healthcare organizations and professionals do to prevent nurse suicides? Combating and preventing suicide means reducing factors that increase the risk of suicide, while increasing the factors that can prevent it. For many individuals, having a strong connection to friends, family, and the community can reduce the risk of suicide. Nurses can also learn about proper coping and problem-solving skills.
Having a sense of purpose can also reduce thoughts of suicide. Healthcare organizations should build a sense of teamwork and collaboration among their employees, while fostering a work environment that values personal safety and wellness. These organizations should also focus on helping patients, not maximizing profits.
Healthcare managers and leaders should educate their employees on suicide prevention strategies, as well as the risk factors for nurse suicide. Everyone should be on the lookout for certain red flags in the workplace such as bullying, showing interest in ending one’s own life, withdrawing from others, and expressing feelings of hopelessness.
Simply asking someone if they are thinking about hurting themselves does not increase the risk of suicide; in fact, it can decrease it. This shows the person that someone cares about them and is looking out for their best interests.
Nursing continues to be a stressful job, and everyone should be there to comfort and support each other in times of need. Those at risk of suicide can call the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 1-800-273-8255. The lifeline provides free 24/7 confidential support to anyone in suicide crisis or emotional distress.