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Nurses at higher risk of suicide than general population, national study confirms

Female nurses have been at greater risk of suicide since 2005, and male nurses since 2011, with the problem largely going unaddressed.

Jeff Lagasse, Associate Editor

Physician burnout is an ongoing issue in healthcare, but physicians aren't the only ones at risk -- nurses are as well. And unfortunately, it's driving some of them to take drastic measures.

In the first national study of its size, researchers at University of California San Diego School of Medicine and UC San Diego Health, Department of Nursing, have found that male and female nurses are at higher risk of suicide than the general population. Results of the longitudinal study were published in the online edition of WORLDviews on Evidence Based-Nursing.

Female nurses have been at greater risk of suicide since 2005, and male nurses since 2011, according to the 2005-2016 National Violent Death Reporting System dataset from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. While there has not been a rise in suicide over that time, suicide has gone unaddressed for years.

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The World Health Organization reports that one person dies every 40 seconds by suicide. It is the 10th leading cause of death in the U.S., occurring at a rate of 13 per 100,000 people. While overall mortality rates are decreasing in the US, the suicide rate is rising.

Female nurse suicide rates from 2005 to 2016 were significantly higher (10 per 100,000) than the general female population (7 per 100,000). Similarly, male nurses (33 per 100,000) were higher than the general male population (27 per 100,000) for the same period.

Opioids and benzodiazepines were the most commonly used method of suicide amongst female nurses, while males more commonly used firearms, signaling the need for suicide prevention programs and support for nurses with pain management or mental health issues.

UC San Diego has successfully tested a suicide prevention program called the Healer Education Assessment and Referral program. HEAR provides education about risk factors and proactive screening focused on identifying, supporting and referring clinicians for untreated depression and/or suicide risk. HEAR has been acclaimed as a best practice in suicide prevention by the American Medical Association.

Since 2009, more than 500 HEAR referrals have been made for clinicians to mental health professionals. Approximately 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.


Physicians and nurses have been struggling with burnout for a while now, driven largely by worsening shortages in both fields. But they're not the only ones feeling besieged by stress. A 2018 poll from the Medical Group Management Association finds that 73% of healthcare leaders feel at least some degree of burnout.

The poll found that out of 1,750 healthcare leaders, 45% said they felt "burned out," while 28% said they were "somewhat" burned out. The remaining leaders, 27%, said they were not burned out.

Twitter: @JELagasse

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