Nurses More Likely To Have Suicidal Thoughts Than Other Workers: Study

October 25, 2021

By a Biometrica staffer

Nurses in the United States experience suicidal thoughts “in greater numbers” than other general workers, a study published in the American Journal of Nursing said. Among nurses, those who do have suicidal thoughts are also less likely to tell anyone about it, the study’s findings added. What’s important to note off the bat is that the study was conducted in November 2017, before the Covid-19 pandemic struck and placed additional stress on healthcare workers.

“While the findings of our study are serious enough, we recognize the impact of the current pandemic has dramatically compounded the situation,” study author Liselotte Dyrbye, MD, a Mayo Clinic internist, said in a statement. Researchers from the Rochester, Minnesota-based Mayo Clinic surveyed 7,378 nurses and 5,198 members of the general workforce on their overall well-being in November 2017.

About 5.5% of nurses who responded reported having suicidal ideation within the past year, a Becker’s Hospital Review report on the study says. Among general workers, this figure was 4.3%. More than one-third of the nurses had at least one symptom of burnout and 40% screened positive for symptoms of depression.

In a multivariable analysis of nurses’ data, after controlling for other personal and professional characteristics, the researchers found that burnout was strongly associated with suicidal ideation. Overall, nurses were more than twice as likely to say they would seek professional help for a serious emotional problem compared to general workers. But nurses who said they recently had suicidal thoughts were less willing to seek help than nurses who had not. 

“These issues warrant greater attention. Systems- and practice-level interventions must be identified and implemented, both to address the higher prevalence of burnout and suicidal ideation in nurses and to mitigate the stigma about mental health problems and other barriers to seeking help,” the study said.

To put this study into the perspective of the Covid-19 pandemic: Data gathered during the SARS and the Covid-19 pandemics suggest that healthcare workers who have direct contact with infected patients experience high rates of depression, anxiety, and other forms of psychological distress.

In a survey of 22,316 nurses conducted by the American Nurses Association (ANA) last January and February, 23% of respondents reported feeling depressed and 1% reported suicidal ideation within the past 14 days, the study adds. Even in the absence of a pandemic, nurses appear to be at high risk for these conditions. 

Although nurses constitute the largest group of health care professionals, surprisingly little is known about their risk factors for suicide. “Suicide is difficult to study. There are challenges to obtaining reliable statistics for its incidence and prevalence, in part because of the relative rarity of an event, as well as ethical and safety concerns,” the authors of the study add.

In studies conducted among physicians and medical students, too, factors associated with suicidal ideation include depression and burnout, but these associations have been less well studied among nurses. According to the World Health Organization (WHO) as well, depression is a leading cause of disability globally and a well-recognized risk factor for suicide.

Just last month, for instance, we at Biometrica wrote about the Dr. Lorna Breen Health Care Provider Protection Act and how it addresses the urgent public health crisis of healthcare workers’ well-being. The bill is named in honor of Dr. Breen, a physician from Charlottesville who died by suicide after fighting on the front lines of the coronavirus pandemic in New York.

What has also compounded the stress of the healthcare industry in recent times is workplace violence and harassment. Also in September, we wrote about how the same healthcare workers who were lauded as the heroes at the start of the Covid-19 pandemic had become the targets of a disgruntled public and were being subjected to harassment, bullying, and threats. The hostility against workers administering Covid-19 vaccines had reached such a fever pitch back then, that government officials were having to plead with the public to treat them in a civil manner.