Figures spark call for inquiry into ‘alarming’ levels of nurse suicide

Latest data from the Office of National Statistics (ONS) shows more than 300 nurses in England and Wales took their own lives between 2011 and 2017.

“It is never inevitable and we must all redouble our efforts to support nursing staff”

Donna Kinnair 

While the figures were first released in October 2018, they were brought to light over the weekend by the national press, sparking calls for action from health leaders.

Previous research from the ONS showed the suicide rate among nurses was 23% higher than the national average, with female nurses at particularly high risk.

Dame Donna Kinnair, chief executive and general secretary of the Royal College of Nursing, said the government and NHS bodies should take a “detailed look” at the statistics and respond appropriately.

Royal College of Nursing

Source: Kate Stanworth

Dame Donna Kinnair

“These figures are a cause of great concern to the nursing profession,” said said. “Every life lost is heartbreaking for their friends, family and colleagues.

“It is never inevitable and we must all redouble our efforts to support nursing staff,” Dame Donna said.

She highlighted how nurses were under increasing pressure in their workplace but claimed they were “repeatedly” ignored by their employers when they raised concerns about their mental health.

“Nurses have long been considered a key high-risk group for suicide, due to the strain and level of responsibility of their role,” she said.

“But our members repeatedly say that their employers ignore or disregard mental health issues,” noted Dame Donna, who added the RCN offered a counselling service to nursing staff who were struggling.

She said there had been a “decrease in the wellbeing of the nursing profession and workplace”, with staffing experiencing high levels of stress, shortages of colleagues, and long working hours.

Labour’s shadow health secretary, Jonathan Ashworth, also called for the government to put the data under the microscope.

Labour Party

Jonathan Ashworth

“These are heartbreaking figures and every life lost is a desperate tragedy,” said Mr Ashworth.

“The numbers of our much-loved nurses taking their own lives is hugely alarming and while it would be inappropriate to jump to conclusions without knowing the facts, I hope ministers respond to calls for an urgent inquiry,” he said. 

“Serious questions must be asked about the stress and pressure we put our NHS staff – especially nurses – under,” he added.

Mr Ashworth urged ministers to make NHS staff wellbeing to be made a “national priority”.

“The health and wellbeing of our NHS staff must never be compromised,” he said. “We must care for those who care for us and our loved ones in time of need.”

“These are heartbreaking figures and every life lost is a desperate tragedy”

Jonathan Ashworth 

A spokesman for the Cavell Nurses’ Trust, which offers support to nurses, midwives and healthcare assistants in personal and financial crises, said the charity was “saddened” to read the figures.

He noted that during 2018, 3,300 people sought help from the charity, often struggling with issues related to illness, disability, older age and domestic abuse.

“We understand that nurses’ lives can become incredibly stressful at times,” said the spokesman, who highlighted that while the charity did not provide specific advice or support for people experiencing suicidal thoughts, it could sign post them to the organisations that did.

In February, Health Education England published the results of an investigation it was asked to carry out by the government into NHS staff wellbeing.

In the NHS Staff and Learners’ Mental Wellbeing Commission report, the authors acknowledged that nurses were among the professional groups most at risk of taking their own life.

A spokesman for the Department of Health and Social Care said it would shortly set out its response to recommendations, as part of the forthcoming workforce implementation plan.

He revealed that the suggestions due to be taken forward were a confidential 24-hour mental health support service; improved rest spaces for on-call staff during and after their shifts; and fast-tracked mental health referrals for NHS employees where needed.

“It is paramount they can access suitable support”

Government spokesman 

Every NHS organisation would also get an “NHS workforce wellbeing guardian” who would be responsible for championing wellbeing support for staff and delivering positive change, he added. 

“Any death by suicide is a preventable tragedy,” he said. “NHS staff put themselves in some of the most challenging situations imaginable as part of their unwavering commitment to caring for us all. It is paramount they can access suitable support.”

The ONS figures show that 44 nurses took their own life in 2011, 43 in 2012 and 38 in 2013.

The situation peaked in 2014 when 54 nurses died by suicide; then 43 in 2015, 51 in 2016, and 32 in 2017.