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How One Program May Help Prevent Suicide in Nurses

Created Sep 09 2019, 10:00 AM by Lippincott Solutions
  • burnout
  • Mental Health
  • Suicide Prevention

By: Lisa Merenda MSN, RN, CRRN, Wolters Kluwer Health Senior Clinical Editor

As part of their day-to-day jobs, nurses are exposed to patients with terminal illness, chronic debilitating diseases and conditions, pain, emergent situations, trauma and death. They face these work challenges all while going about their own personal life stressors and challenges outside of work.

These combined stressors can trigger compassion fatigue and even lead to depression, nurse burnout and suicidal thoughts. Nurses are there to help others, but what happens when our nurses need help?

According to the American Foundation for Suicide Prevention, suicide is the 10th leading cause of death in the United States, and it is on the rise. While national data has been abundant for other professions (physicians, teachers, police officers, firefighters and military personnel), the data on nurse suicide rates has been historically lacking. Researchers have only recently started to explore how suicide affects the nursing profession. A study in 2019 by Dr. Judy Davidson, et al., found that nurses (female and male) die by suicide at a significantly higher rate than the general population.

What can be done?

The Healer Education, Assessment and Referral (HEAR) program, formerly known as the Suicide Prevention and Depression Awareness program, was started 10 years ago to prevent physician suicide. HEAR has been endorsed by the American Medical Association as a best practice in suicide prevention and, to date, it has been replicated in approximately 60 medical campuses throughout the United States.

Did you know that the HEAR program can also be replicated for nurses? HEAR for nurses has recently been piloted at University of California, San Diego. The program’s intent is to screen, assess and refer nurses who are at risk for suicide. Additionally, nurses can receive education about burnout, depression and suicide. The program strives to take away the stigma associated with mental health treatment and encourages individuals to be proactive and reach out for help.

The HEAR program is also designed to help managers react to situations that evoke stress in their staff. Managers receive training on how to run emotional debriefings, which can help staff communicate with each other about the stressful situations they have experienced.

According to Dr. Davidson, the research team at University of California, San Diego, plans to work with nursing leadership to ensure that there is protected time for staff to attend presentations while aiming to make the presentations shorter and more interactive in nature. They also want to ensure they offer continuing education programs on resiliency to nurses.

Although we are just starting to scratch the surface on understanding nurse suicide and addressing suicide prevention efforts, it is vital that nurse educators, managers and nurse leaders campaign to bring mental health needs to the forefront. If suddenly faced with the untimely and unfortunate suicide of one of our nurses, are we even prepared to adequately support our staff?

September is National Suicide Prevention Awareness Month

If you or someone you know is having suicidal thoughts, call the National Suicide Hotline at 1-800-273-TALK (8255).

To implement the HEAR program at your organization, contact Maggi Mortali at American Foundation for Suicide Prevention: mmortali@afsp.org.

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