The number of nursing staff seeking help for suicidal thoughts is up 98% in a 10-month period, data from the Royal College of Nursing (RCN) has shown.
The college has today issued a stark warning over the ‘growing mental health crisis’ among the profession and has commissioned research exploring the reasons why nursing staff are having suicidal thoughts.
In the first 10 months of 2023, there has been 176 cases of nursing staff telling the RCN’s membership support line during an initial call that they are having suicidal thoughts. This was compared to 89 cases during the same period last year – an increase of 98%, the RCN said.
Meanwhile, in the whole of 2022 there were 113 cases, it added.
In October 2023, data suggested there was the equivalent of one person every working day reporting suicidal ideation during their initial call with the RCN Advice Line – compared to one person a week in October 2021.
The rise in nursing staff having suicidal thoughts should be ‘a frightening wake-up call’, said RCN’s interim head of nursing practice Stephen Jones.
‘Nursing staff contribute so much to our society, but working in an inherently stressful job can come at an enormous personal cost,’ he added.
Following the latest findings, research has now been commissioned by the RCN to look into the reasons why nursing staff are having suicidal thoughts and whether there is a disproportionate impact on those from marginalised groups.
The RCN stressed it was ‘concerned that persistent understaffing, intolerable pressures at work and financial insecurity at home may be contributing factors’.
‘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,’ added Mr Jones.
‘Coupled with nursing pay not keeping up with the cost-of-living, we’re alarmed by this growing mental health crisis among nursing staff.’
With a third of mental health hubs created to support staff working in the NHS in England now closed, Mr Jones warned: ‘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.’
The college reiterated its call on the government to ‘urgently’ provide funding for dedicated mental health support for nursing staff and, more broadly, to help tackle chronic workforce shortages.
There are currently more than 40,000 nursing vacancies in the NHS in England alone, with a record number of patients on an NHS waiting list.
Liam Barnes, trustee chair of mental health charity The Laura Hyde Foundation, said: ‘Unfortunately, the statistics shown on large increases in suicidal ideation and risk presented by the RCN are not unexpected.
‘Staff are under huge pressure both professionally and personally to operate today and that will inevitably takes its toll especially when mental health of staff are often considered a tick box exercise by management.’
The Laura Hyde Foundation was set up in 2017 in memory of Mr Barnes’ cousin and nurse Laura Hyde who died by suicide.
Mr Barnes added: ‘Using our very own Laura’s story, we know the impact this can have on colleagues, friends and family and more needs to be done.’
Deputy chief executive of NHS Providers, Saffron Cordery, said: ‘The RCN is right to highlight the impact of escalating pressure on nurses’ mental health due to increased demand and staff shortages.
‘We need urgent action to tackle this situation, which has led to an alarming rise in suicidal thoughts among nursing staff.’
She added: ‘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.’
The RCN has previously called on the government to implement an integrated suicide prevention strategy for the nursing workforce across the UK. Since then, the RCN has supported the work of NHS England to produce a national suicide prevention toolkit for England, which launched in September.
A Department of Health and Social Care spokesperson said: ‘We are hugely grateful to NHS staff for their invaluable work and their health and wellbeing is paramount. That’s why all NHS staff, including nurses, can access physical and mental health support and advice – including targeted psychological support and treatment.
‘Mental health and wellbeing hubs also provide NHS colleagues quick access to assessment and local mental health services where needed.
‘There are record numbers of nurses working in the NHS with over 17,600 more than this time last year, and we are on track to deliver 50,000 more nurses by next year.’