Training on suicide prevention should be seen as important as learning life support skills, according to nurses who have highlighted a lack of education and awareness among the profession.
While nurses can play a crucial role in suicide prevention, the Royal College of Nursing’s Mental Health Forum said they frequently did not get the training and education they needed.
“Suicide awareness and intervention should be as fundamental to nursing staff as basic life support”
Ways to improve suicide awareness in nursing were among topics debated at the RCN’s annual congress on Tuesday, with Mental Health Awareness Week also under way.
Almost 6,000 people took their own lives in the UK last year, according to figures from the Office for National Statistics.
The RCN noted that only a third of those ending their lives were known to mental health services and many more will have come into contact with other health professionals, such as general nurses, with possible opportunities to try and help prevent suicides.
However, a 2015 survey by the RCN found half of nurses had not received any training in suicide prevention or awareness since starting work, while 60% had not received any as part of their nursing degree.
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In March this year, the Nursing and Midwifery Council confirmed that the recognition and assessment of suicide and self-harm should be included in nursing degree courses.
The RCN’s Mental Health Forum is now calling on all universities to implement this new standard as soon as possible and has also highlighted the need for ongoing on-the-job training for all nurses, not just those working in mental health.
Mental health nurse and forum member Tim Coupland proposed the debate on suicide prevention, which took place earlier this week at the college’s annual conference in Belfast.
“In many cases one conversation at the right time, in the right way, could save a life and be life-changing”
He highlighted that it followed the much-publicised suicide of one of the male characters in the soap Coronation Street last week, in an episode watched by more than seven million viewers.
“At some point during our working lives, every health professional will come into contact with someone who is feeling suicidal,” said Mr Coupland.
“We all need the confidence to be able to talk frankly and openly with patients about how they are feeling, in order to let them know we can support and help them,” he said.
“But I know that many nurses are worried about what to say in these situations, what to do, how to phrase their response, when to share and when to step in – realising that someone is suicidal is disturbing, and it often feels easier to play down the idea or perhaps quickly pass it to a mental health professional,” he noted.
Mr Coupland said suicide prevention training should be seen as important as basic life support. “We want all universities offering nursing degrees to include training in this vital area in their courses as soon as possible, and for employers to offer on-the-job training too,” he said.
“Suicide awareness and intervention should be as fundamental to nursing staff as basic life support – your intervention, your response, could literally save a life,” he added.
National director for mental health
Claire Murdoch, NHS England’s national director for mental health, said nurses should be at the forefront of efforts to reduce suicide.
“Even though we know suicides overall are reducing, there is so much more that can be done,” said Ms Murdoch.
“We still need to believe that these deaths are preventable, and nurses are ideally placed to be leading the way,” she said.
She also highlighted the need for more training. “All of us should be well trained, be able to recognise the signs, as well as support and signpost a person,” she said.
She added: “In many cases one conversation at the right time, in the right way, could save a life and be life-changing.”
In an interview, she recently told Nursing Times that the skills and ongoing development of the mental health nursing workforce must be recognised, including by nurses themselves.