UK HealthCare

Op-Ed: We Must Break the Silence Around Nurse Suicide

photo of dean Janie Heath
Janie Heath is the dean of the UK College of Nursing.

LEXINGTON, Ky. (Feb. 16, 2021) — While the COVID-19 pandemic rages on with new variants, the urgency for Kentucky nurses to stay on the front lines now extends to a massive vaccine campaign. Just like Florence Nightingale and Mary Jane Seacole,  a British-Jamaican nurse during the Crimean war, nurses today are working 24/7 to get the mission accomplished. Although the practice settings may change from a critical care unit one day and the next to a large parking lot tent, football stadium or drive-through clinic, the shepherding of public health in the Commonwealth remains the same.

A key question is, “Who is shepherding the mental health and wellness of nurses?” What about turning up the call for action with a “warp speed mission for the mental health and wellness for Kentucky nurses,” like a “vaccine to help build up immunity” from the pandemic’s triple impact on health, daily life disruption and economic downturn.

Nurses are human too and experience the same worries and anxieties as all Americans. Pre-COVID-19, the prevalence of nurse suicide was higher than the United States’ general population and now with compassion fatigue escalating, the urgency is greater for evidence-based interventions so another life is not lost to suicide.

Leaders of the Kentucky Nurses Action Coalition (KNAC) have been actively engaged to address “the silence of nurse suicide.” Leveraging the recently passed Kentucky Nurses Association (KNA) and the Kentucky Nursing Deans and Directors (KNDD) resolution (October 2020), “A Call to Action for Kentucky Nurse Leaders to Promote Practices for Optimal Resilience and Suicide Prevention in Schools of Nursing,” multiple venues are unfolding to “break the silence.” In collaboration with KNA, KNAC leaders are advocating for Friday, May 7 to be declared Kentucky Nurse Suicide Prevention Day. In honor of the extension of Year of the Nurse and Midwife, in May the KNA will expand “nurses’ week” for a month and will offer free continuing education programs to include evidence-based strategies to build nurse resiliency and shift from mental health crisis intervention to prevention.

In an upcoming legislative session, KNAC and KNA will partner with the Kentucky Board of Nursing for a legislative proposal to require a suicide prevention training course as a requirement for nurse licensure. By working together, committing time and resources to implement these intentional strategies, we will emerge stronger and healthier:

1. Staying focused on what we can control – stopping COVID-19 single-handedly is out of our hands but we can control how we react to the challenges by following CDC recommendations for double masking, handwashing, physical distancing and vaccination.

2. Taking time to breathe and reflect – thinking about how our new world with COVID-19 brings opportunities for creative adjustments and family connections by returning to simpler times in our lives.

3. Practicing gratitude – finding something positive every day and being grateful for simple things like beautiful days of sunshine or spending more time with pets is vital.

4. Taking care of ourselves – prioritizing “me time” is challenging but critical if we are going to come out healthy on the other side. We must get adequate sleep, exercise and eat healthy.

Embracing helpful resources – accessing ANA resources for well-being such as “a nursing state of mind podcast series,” confidential 24/7 calls to talk about wellness, recovery and resilience and the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline 1-800-273-TALK (8255).

Kentucky nurse leaders are grateful for the relentless efforts of so many who continue to build a culture of health and now we invite you to help us strengthen the mental health and wellness of our nursing workforce. #TogetherKY #KYNursingStrong. #STOPnurseSuicide

The UK Counseling Center and UK Health and Wellness have mental health resources available for students, faculty and staff. 

Janie Heath, PhD, APRN-BC, FAAN, FNAP, FAANP, is Dean of the University of Kentucky College of Nursing and Warwick Professor of Nursing and President of the Kentucky Nurses Action Coalition.

The University of Kentucky is increasingly the first choice for students, faculty and staff to pursue their passions and their professional goals. In the last two years, Forbes has named UK among the best employers for diversity, and INSIGHT into Diversity recognized us as a Diversity Champion four years running. UK is ranked among the top 30 campuses in the nation for LGBTQ* inclusion and safety. UK has been judged a “Great College to Work for" three years in a row, and UK is among only 22 universities in the country on Forbes' list of "America's Best Employers."  We are ranked among the top 10 percent of public institutions for research expenditures — a tangible symbol of our breadth and depth as a university focused on discovery that changes lives and communities. And our patients know and appreciate the fact that UK HealthCare has been named the state’s top hospital for five straight years. Accolades and honors are great. But they are more important for what they represent: the idea that creating a community of belonging and commitment to excellence is how we honor our mission to be not simply the University of Kentucky, but the University for Kentucky.