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Study: Nurses Are At Higher Risk Of Suicide Than Most People

A Biomedical Research facility on the UCSD School of Medicine campus is shown on May 1, 2019.
Brandon Quester
A Biomedical Research facility on the UCSD School of Medicine campus is shown on May 1, 2019.

A new UC San Diego study found that nurses die by suicide at a significantly higher rate than the general population. One of the authors of that study, Dr. Judy Davidson, sat down with KPBS reporter Priya Sridhar to talk about why these numbers are higher and the measures being taken to stop them from climbing.

VIDEO: Study Finds Nurses Are At Higher Risk Of Suicide Than Most People

RELATED: Nurse Suicides: Getting Help Before It’s Too Late

Q: Suicide rates were 58% higher for female nurses and 41% higher for male nurses, than the general population. Why do you think that is?

A: The reasons for the suicide rate are not clearly understood at this time. This is the first study that's been done on nurse suicide in the United States in over two decades. So we're just beginning to investigate this and learn more about it. We do have a suicide prevention program at UCSD, and through that program over the last three years we've learned that nurses are under a lot of stress related to over-regulation. The profession is highly regulated. There's a lot of rules and that creates a lot of psychological burden. Then, of course witnessing things like death, repeated death. Death of people that remind you of your loved ones or family members. So, for instance, if you were taking care of a baby that was burned and died, and that baby was the same age as your own at home, it might really affect you deeply.

Q: It’s definitely an inherently stressful profession, and I did read a little bit that it's also a little bit about the culture. When you look at fields like law enforcement or emergency responders, often times when they witness death they get time off. Whereas, that's not really the case when it comes to nursing.

A: Right. A nurse can work with a patient and develop a really deep connection with that patient and the patient may not survive. And then, as soon as the patient's gone to the morgue, she's expected to pick up the next one. So there's no break at all between these big events and then the next person they need to care for.

Q: You mentioned the UC San Diego HEAR program. Tell me a little bit about that. I know it started in 2009, and it's aim is to help prevent these high suicide rates.

A: Yes, that was developed by our physicians in collaboration with the American Foundation of Suicide Prevention, in 2009, after they realized that they were having frequent repeated suicides among the medical staff – and that's not unique to UCSD, that's common throughout the country. It's known that doctors are at a higher risk. So they decided to take a proactive approach and encourage physicians to take a screening profile, anonymous encrypted screening, at least once a year. Through that screening profile they can find high risk individuals and encourage them to get the mental health treatment they need. They can remain completely anonymous all the way through the referral process, and we think that's why this works.

Q: It seems like the suicide rates have gone down since the program started.

A: Yeah. We can't give false hope that this will never happen again, but it has. The physicians used to have one per year at UCSD between medical student all the way up to attending, and there have been no physician deaths since they started the program. We had nurse suicides in San Diego several years back. We started that program for the nurses and we have not had a suicide since. We know that we can't prevent them completely. Suicide will happen at some point, but we are detecting many high risk individuals and getting them into treatment.

Study: Nurses Are At Higher Risk Of Suicide Than Most People
Listen to this story by Priya Sridhar.

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