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HealthDecember 07, 2021

Study examines suicidal ideation and help-seeking attitudes in U.S. nurses

By: Sarah Handzel, BSN, RN
It’s widely known that nurses who have direct patient contact with COVID-19 infected individuals have higher rates of depression, anxiety, and other forms of psychological distress compared to those not working with this patient population. A survey conducted by the American Nurses Association (ANA) found 23% of respondents reporting feelings of depression; of these, 1% reported suicidal ideations within the last 14 days.

Nurses are the largest group of healthcare workers, but little is known about their risk factors for suicide. Ethical and safety concerns, as well as the rarity of such events, makes obtaining reliable statistics difficult. A new study in the American Journal of Nursing investigated the prevalence of suicidal ideation among nurses, as well as their attitudes toward seeking help for psychological issues relative to other workers.

The study was completed using a cross-sectional survey of a random sample of nurses who were members of the ANA. Data was collected for approximately one and a half months in late 2017. In total, 7,378 nurses responded to the survey. Median age was 51 years, with 20 years median nursing experience. Their results were compared to other U.S. workers who were randomly selected and were contacted by postal mail or telephone. Unemployed individuals were excluded from the study.

The survey included two tools for assessing depression and burnout, along with questions about suicidal ideation, attitudes toward help seeking, and demographics. After collecting all possible data, the study authors analyzed the information and found:

  • 5.5% of nurses considered suicide within the past year
  • 38.2% of all nurses had at least one symptom of burnout
  • 43.3% of respondents screened positive for depression symptoms
  • 84.2% of nurse participants indicated they would “probably” or “definitely” seek professional help for serious emotional problems

Of note, nurses with suicidal ideation were less likely (72.6%) to probably or definitely seek out professional help.

In age-matched cohorts, only 4.3% of U.S. workers reported suicidal ideation. Also, only 63.2% responded that they would seek professional help for a serious emotional problem. After controlling for all variables, burnout was associated with nearly three-fold higher odds of suicidal ideation.

Previous studies point to care barriers

Other studies indicate there may be several barriers to accessing mental health services, such as:

  • Concerns about the potential negative impact on one’s career
  • Concerns about confidentiality
  • Difficulties in getting time off work for treatment
  • Challenges with scheduling appointments with providers

Additionally, some states include questions about mental health on applications for nursing licensure — this may also impact nurses’ attitudes toward seeking out help.

This study confirms that healthcare organizations must address system-level causes of depression and burnout for the good of the workforce. Interventions must be designed around the complexity of various healthcare roles in order to be truly effective. The authors urge healthcare entities large and small to implement practice-level interventions to help nurses achieve better mental health.

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Sarah Handzel, BSN, RN
Freelance Health and Medical Content Writer, Wolters Kluwer Health
Sarah has over nine years’ experience in various clinical areas, including surgery, endocrinology, family practice, and pharmaceuticals. She began writing professionally in 2016 as a way to use her medical knowledge beyond the bedside to help educate and inform healthcare consumers and providers.
  1. AJN, American Journal of Nursing: November 2021 - Volume 121 - Issue 11 - p 24-36 doi: 10.1097/01.NAJ.0000798056.73563.fa
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