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Figures spark call for inquiry into 'alarming' levels of nurse suicide


The government has been urged to carry out an urgent inquiry into “hugely alarming” nurse suicide figures, amid claims their cries for help were “repeatedly” ignored. 

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.


Readers' comments (11)

  • I’m a nurse, attempted suicide survivor , back at it now in a less stressful job, still not sure how glad I am to have survived; though I am grateful for all the help and support I’ve since had

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  • I'm have cried countless times and there have been days that have been so tramatic I have come home from work in a state of panic. My colleagues try their best and my ward manager is kind but they are also struggling and can only do so much. There is only so much they can help with. It is the sheer level of exhaustion and the insane workload. I care so much and am trying my best to help people but feel like I've failed them when I can't do everything that is expected of me, ie the job of 2-3 nurses. Having a wellbeing champion will help to a degree but we need safe staffing and to be able to take a break. Otherwise it's going to get worse

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  • Nursing is a profession which tends to attract people who have genuine a empathy for others. But it is a profession whose body of knowledge is not understood by most outside of nursing, and its importance to health is very often trivialised. Certainly it is grossly undervalued by policy makers and the government. Importantly, there is a significant degree of emotional labour inherent to nursing 'work' which is fairly unique to caring professions, and is exacerbated by unsafe levels of staffing, lack of support, a salary that does not reflect that of other professions, and historic negative discourse from the media.
    Is it any wonder that nurses feel powerless, vulnerable and desperate? These statistics are not a surprise to me; mental ill health is rife within the nursing profession. It certainly is a scandal.

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  • As nurses we are reluctant to shout up and say we are struggling for fear that we will not be supported - referred to the NMC on health grounds or "encouraged" to leave our roles. Following a FOI it was found that 15nurses committed suicide before the closure of their FtP case. Whether the two are related is unknown as this data is not kept by the NMC, unlike the GMC who do audit this. We are still waiting for better mental health support from our regulator and monitoring of suicide risk related to FtP despite it first being discussed in 2013! It needs to be given the appropriate priority that it requires before its too late. Qualifying as being a nurse or midwife should not negate you still recieving the same safeguarding and duty of care

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  • waiting times for counselling services are often too long so person is in further or worst crisis when and if they receive help

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  • Those in the NHS tasked with safeguarding the health of its staff should hang their heads in shame. I am a female healthcare worker with 21 years of experience: work stress combined with traumatic events in my personal life pushed me to the brink of suicide more than once. Putting me on capability for reduced performance whilst I was waiting almost a year for treatment for severe depression and anxiety reduced me to a state of utter despair. I walked away from a job I loved because I had no other choice if I was to survive. If I had stayed even a few months longer I would not be here now. I miss my work and my colleagues every single day. If the NHS, with all its in-house 'experts', cannot grasp that their single biggest asset - their staff - need more support and understanding, what hope is there for all those who put their mental health on the line for their profession and their patients?

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  • This says it all. Nurses really are overworked and grossly underpaid. Is the juice worth the squeeze?

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  • John Owen well said

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  • I am student and I have been on the brink with personal family things happening, my silliness to help them , grades slipped, fear my tutor, lost my uni pt retired ,im in year 2 now im scared wont make register. I was working hard for a resit between trying to get mentors attention too for skills busy ward time, numerous disturbances too at assessment. I see the therapist once a month.

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  • Anonymous 6 May,
    First, don't fear your tutor; they should not intimidate their students. If necessary instigate the anti bullying procedures. Always have a witness when with the tutor in question. Second, remember that nursing is simple common sense plus knowledge. Knowledge is key; if you know and understand what you are doing and why, you will always take the right action. The best way to get knowledge is by reading, reading, reading, then the practical work will not be so mysterious. Last, try to be good to yourself: don't crucify yourself over mistakes; just use them as an opportunity to learn (I used to be a self castigator; life got easier after I let that go). And tell the family you will help WHEN YOU CAN; ie after you have qualified; you have enough on your own plate without the family's problems too. If you read this, remember, there are friends all around if you can allow them to help. All the best.

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