Growing number of nurses experiencing suicidal thoughts, RCN says

The RCN said the counselling service figures ‘should be a frightening wake-up call’ (PA)
The RCN said the counselling service figures ‘should be a frightening wake-up call’ (PA) The RCN said the counselling service figures ‘should be a frightening wake-up call’ (PA)

There is a growing number of nursing staff who are expressing suicidal thoughts, according to the Royal College of Nursing (RCN).

The college is calling for greater investment in support services to tackle the “growing mental health crisis”, which is says has been sparked by “intolerable working conditions”.

RCN counselling services data showed there were 176 members who told the college’s advice line they had been having suicidal thoughts in the first 10 months of 2023, up from 89 cases in the first 10 months of 2022.

Stephen Jones, the RCN’s interim head of nursing practice, said the rise “should be a frightening wake-up call”.

“Nursing staff contribute so much to our society, but working in an inherently stressful job can come at an enormous personal cost. Yet we see support services cut when we should be seeing greater investment in looking after those who care for us.

“The increasing burden on nursing staff as they try to help clear the excessive backlog in care has created intolerable working conditions on every shift.

“Coupled with nursing pay not keeping up with the cost of living, we’re alarmed by this growing mental health crisis among nursing staff.

“The UK Government must understand that cuts to mental health support for nursing staff can’t continue – when you invest in the health of nursing staff you also invest in the health of patients.”

In response to its latest figures, it has commissioned research exploring why nursing staff are having these thoughts and if those from marginal groups are disproportionately affected.

The college said it is “concerned” that “persistent understaffing, intolerable pressures at work and financial insecurity at home may be contributing factors”.

Saffron Cordery, deputy chief executive at NHS Providers, said the RCN is “right” to highlight the impact of work pressures on the mental health of nurses.

“We need urgent action to tackle this situation, which has led to an alarming rise in suicidal thoughts among nursing staff,” she said.

“Nurses play a vital role in our society but cannot be expected to meet such high demand without proper national support for, and investment in, frontline services.

“The overwhelming pressure on nurses, who are at the forefront of addressing the huge care backlog, leads to unbearably stressful working conditions shift after shift. This is compounded by wages failing to keep pace with the rising cost of living.

“It’s crucial the government recognise that reducing mental health support for nursing staff is unsustainable.

“We were extremely disappointed that the government cut funding for NHS staff mental health hubs earlier this year. A third of them have now closed, leaving an estimated one million healthcare workers without the support they need.

“Investing in the mental health of nurses not only benefits them, but also patients, as the wellbeing of healthcare providers directly impacts patient care.”

Jacqui Morrissey, assistant director of influencing at the charity Samaritans, said: “We know from health and social care callers that they can feel being honest about finding things tough can seem like a sign of weakness and can be a barrier to seeking support.”

She added that the figures from the RCN “reinforces our continued concern that nurses are at a much higher risk of suicide compared to those in other occupations”.

“It is vital that nurses who might be struggling are encouraged to find help before they reach crisis point and that this help is available to them when they need it,” Ms Morrissey added.

“Suicide is complex and a number of factors like exposure to potentially traumatic events, working hours, heavy workload, pay satisfaction and lack of workplace support can impact the wellbeing of nurses and midwives.

“Workplaces, therefore, can create more supportive cultures and invest in supporting their staff so they are able to take care of their mental health in the same way they would their physical health.

“The government can also play its role in preventing suicide by delivering a truly joined-up approach that includes supporting public sector workers in its new National Suicide Prevention Strategy.”