Review of studies into suicidal behaviour and thoughts among nurses and midwives

Nurses need to have access to better wellbeing and psychological support after research showed they were at particular risk of suicide, according to a new paper.

Review of studies into suicidal behaviour and thoughts among nurses and midwives

Professor Keith Hawton, from Oxford’s Centre for Suicide Research in the University Department of Psychiatry, alongside Samantha Groves (researcher) and Karen Lascelles (nurse consultant), from Oxford Health NHS Foundation Trust, reviewed 100 studies into suicidal behaviours and thoughts among nurses and midwives for a new paper published in the Journal of Affective Disorders.

Several of those studies from multiple countries (including the UK) confirmed that nursing professionals, especially females, are at increased risk of suicide. Contributing factors cited included psychiatric disorders, substance (particularly alcohol) misuse, physical health problems and occupational and interpersonal difficulties.

However, the review also highlighted a lack of research into the prevention of suicide in nurses.

Professor Hawton says:

“There is substantial evidence that nursing professionals have an increased risk of suicide relative to the general population and some other occupational groups.

“Nursing is a physically and psychologically demanding occupation, including long and irregular working hours, high workload, low staffing levels, frequent emotional demands, and challenging working relationships. For female nurses, there is often the additional challenge of balancing work and home life, with women still undertaking most of the burden of unpaid care work. These challenges may contribute to the prevalence of psychiatric conditions and burnout among nurses. It is also possible that previous life experiences involving illness or distress are factors that attract individuals to the nursing profession.  Whilst this has the value of bringing great insights into practice, it may also mean that some nurses themselves have particular vulnerabilities which might contribute to suicidal thinking or behaviour.

“The limited evidence regarding prevention measures indicates a major need to develop primary and secondary interventions for this at-risk occupational group; for example, education regarding enhancing wellbeing and safe alcohol use, alongside accessible psychological and peer support.”

The paper noted that often nurses who died by suicide had been in contact with primary care or psychiatric services beforehand, which provides an opportunity to identify potential risk and provide support.

The authors also suggest the development of a wider range of interventions to prevent suicide in nurses that are co-produced and evaluated by nurses and nursing students themselves.

Learn more

The paper can be read in full in the Journal of Affective Disorders.

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Published: 31 March 2023