Female nurses twice as likely to die from suicide as other women

ANN ARBOR, Mich. — Burnout among healthcare providers may have hit new levels during the peak of the COVID-19 pandemic. For many, the stress from long hours and constant exposure to severely ill or deceased patients can take a massive toll on mental health. In fact, according to a highly alarming study, female nurses are twice as likely to die from suicide as other women.

The study, out of the University of Michigan School of Nursing, shows that female nurses are also 70 percent more likely to take their own lives than female doctors.

“It’s much higher than I expected. The takeaway for me is we’ve focused so much on physician welfare that, historically, we haven’t paid enough attention to this huge workforce that, based on our data, is at much higher risk,” says study lead author Dr. Matthew Davis, associate professor at the school, in a statement.

Dr. Davis explains that the study did not include data from the pandemic, meaning the numbers “could be even higher” now. Researchers say the “extraordinary” demands that the COVID-19 pandemic has placed on women — from homeschooling to finding child care — will further increase the stress on nurses.

‘Even before COVID, nurses reported substantial stressors’

The research team analyzed mortality data from 2007 to 2018, identifying 2,374 suicides among nurses, 857 among doctors, and 156,141 in the general U.S. population. Study co-author Professor Christopher Friesek says nurses and physicians face many similar risk factors for suicide, but those risk factors are “potentially exacerbated” in nurses by long hours and less autonomy.

“I’m worried about two key issues in today’s workplace. First, health care systems are placing increased demands on nurses, physicians, and other health care workers. Even before COVID, nurses reported substantial workplace stressors, including reduced staffing, increased complexity of care, and additional bureaucratic tasks. Nurses have been working non-stop caring for seriously ill patients and facing their own exposure to this virus,” says Friese. “Second, the nurses I work with routinely face tougher challenges at home that place added stress on them, such as caregiving for children or parents. You put the workplace and home stressors together and it’s no surprise that nurses are struggling. I worry that without concerted action, things may get worse before they get better.”

Study co-author Professor Julie Bynum says she has been struck by the widespread use of data to better understand women’s health. However, “[u]ntil our recent paper, it has not been used to understand the health of these women — as nurses — who are central to a well-functioning health care workforce. As the population ages, the need for both bedside nurses and nurses who take on roles as advanced practitioners will become ever more crucial,” she explains.

Among male nurses, the risk of suicide is no higher than the general male population, the study found. Still, the researchers were surprised by the high number of suicides among female nurses compared to doctors. They found no difference in the suicide rates of physicians and the general public, which differs from previous studies.

Prescription drugs driving up suicide rates for nurses?

Prof. Friese says one major hurdle to seeking help is the stigma that people fear for their livelihoods. “Employers need to make it easy for nurses, doctors, and other health care workers who are struggling to access the help they need,” he notes.

The findings also show that nurses are 90 percent more likely to experience on-the-job problems and 20 to 30 percent more likely to be depressed than the general population. The most common form of suicide among nurses was overdosing, according to the findings.

Both nurses and doctors are more likely to have antidepressants, benzodiazepines, barbiturates, and opiates in their system which, the researchers say, suggests a need for greater behavioral health awareness among health care professionals.

The study is published in JAMA Psychiatry.

SWNS writer Stephen Beech contributed to this report.

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