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Doubling in nurses reporting suicidal thoughts

The number of nursing staff expressing suicidal thoughts has almost doubled, the Royal College of Nursing (RCN) has reported.

RCN interim head of nursing practice Stephen Jones said this surge should be a “frightening wake-up call” and demanded greater investment in wellbeing for healthcare staff.

“We’re alarmed by this growing mental health crisis among nursing staff”

Stephen Jones

The college reported a 98% increase in nursing staff telling its Advice Line call handlers they were having suicidal thoughts between January and October 2023, compared to the same period in 2022.

In October 2023, the equivalent of one person every working day reported experiencing these thoughts. RCN said this figure was one person per week two years ago.

Mr Jones said the figures showed the impact of a decline in wellbeing support for nurses, ever-increasing workload stress and “poorly resourced workplaces”.

“Nursing staff contribute so much to our society, but working in an inherently stressful job can come at an enormous personal cost,” said Mr Jones.

Stephen Jones

“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.

“Coupled with nursing pay not keeping up with the cost of living, we’re alarmed by this growing mental health crisis among nursing staff.”

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The RCN called on the UK Government to “urgently” fund dedicated mental health support for staff, and to tackle the ongoing nursing workforce shortages – pointing to the 40,000 nursing vacancy rate in England’s NHS.

The college referred to the closure of some dedicated NHS staff wellbeing hubs as a further reason for mental health declining.

It follows the news, earlier this year, that government funding for the hubs, established in the wake of the Covid-19 pandemic, was ending in March 2023, and that NHS England would only provide reduced funding for them until the end of 2023-24.

A third of the original network of NHS staff mental health and wellbeing hubs have now closed, according to the RCN and others.

Mr Jones added: “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.”

Equally concerned was Saffron Cordery, deputy chief executive of NHS Providers, who described the closure of these mental health hubs – and other reductions in mental health support – as “unsustainable”.

She said: “We were extremely disappointed that the government cut funding for NHS staff mental health hubs earlier this year.

“A third of them have now closed, leaving an estimated one million healthcare workers without the support they need.

“Investing in the mental health of nurses not only benefits them, but also patients, as the wellbeing of healthcare providers directly impacts patient care.”

Saffron Cordery

Saffron Cordery

Ms Cordery called for urgent action to tackle declining wellbeing among the nursing workforce – and in particular an increase in those expressing suicidal thoughts.

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“The RCN is right to highlight the impact of escalating pressure on nurses’ mental health due to increased demand and staff shortages,” she said.

“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.”

A Department of Health and Social Care spokesperson responded: “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.”

The renewed concerns from the RCN and other health leaders match up with findings of a Nursing Times survey, published in February, in which 40% of respondents described their mental health and wellbeing as “bad” or “very bad”.

The survey was carried out as part of the Nursing Times Are You OK? campaign, which was launched in April 2020 to lobby for sufficient mental health support for nurses during and after the pandemic.

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