Data from an advice line shows a doubling in numbers of nurses reporting suicidal thoughts, while a survey of unpaid carers also reveals a high proportion experiencing thoughts of self-harm or suicide
“Nursing staff contribute so much to our society, but working in an inherently stressful job can come at an enormous personal cost. 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.” Stephen Jones, interim head of nursing practice, Royal College of Nurses
The number of nurses who experience suicidal thoughts nearly doubled in the space of just one year, according to new data from the Royal College of Nurses (RCN).
The College said there had been 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 that two years ago, the equivalent figure was one person a week.
RCN’s interim head of nursing practice, Stephen Jones, said the figures showed the impact of a decline in wellbeing support for nurses, ever-increasing workload stress and “poorly resourced workplaces”.
He added: “Nursing staff contribute so much to our society, but working in an inherently stressful job can come at an enormous personal cost. 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.”
The RCN said that the closure of some dedicated NHS staff wellbeing hubs may also have contributed to a decline in mental health among nurses. Government funding for the hubs ended in March 2023, and NHS England has said it would only provide reduced funding for them until the end of 2023-24.
Jones said: “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.”
The RCN called on the government to “urgently” fund dedicated mental health support for staff, and to tackle the ongoing nursing workforce shortages. There are currently 40,000 nursing vacancies in England.
The findings coincided with the publication of a survey by Carers UK which found that the vast majority of the 11,000 unpaid carers surveyed said they were stressed or anxious, while half felt depressed and lonely.
More than a quarter of the respondents said they had bad or very bad mental health. Of these, more than a third said that they had thoughts related to self-harm or suicide, while nearly three-quarters of those felt they were at breaking point.
Helen Walker, the chief executive of Carers UK, said: “Unpaid carers make an enormous contribution to society, but far too regularly feel unseen, undervalued and completely forgotten by services that are supposed to be there to support them.
“Not being able to take breaks from caring, being able to prioritise their own health or earn enough money to make ends meet is causing many to hit rock bottom.”
The Liberal Democrats called for a package of measures worth £1bn, to better support carers, giving them more access to respite care and a rise in carer’s allowance leader. The leader, Ed Davey, said: “We can make some big changes that actually don’t really cost very much. Family carers are holding up the NHS. If you care about the NHS, you have got to care about care.”
It is worrying to see such a steep rise in the number of nurses reporting suicidal thoughts, which is likely to reflect a wider number experiencing depression and anxiety. It is also concerning to see, at the same time, that half of unpaid carers report feeling depressed and lonely, with a sizeable minority also reporting thoughts of suicide or self-harm. Nurses and unpaid carers are absolutely integral to society – we cannot function without them. As well as addressing the staffing crisis in the NHS, there is a strong case to be made for reintroducing staff wellbeing hubs, and for offering more respite and financial support for unpaid carers that could help alleviate the burden that so many feel.