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.

As the state’s flagship, land-grant institution, the University of Kentucky exists to advance the Commonwealth. We do that by preparing the next generation of leaders — placing students at the heart of everything we do — and transforming the lives of Kentuckians through education, research and creative work, service and health care. We pride ourselves on being a catalyst for breakthroughs and a force for healing, a place where ingenuity unfolds. It's all made possible by our people — visionaries, disruptors and pioneers — who make up 200 academic programs, a $476.5 million research and development enterprise and a world-class medical center, all on one campus.   

In 2022, UK was ranked by Forbes as one of the “Best Employers for New Grads” and named a “Diversity Champion” by INSIGHT into Diversity, a testament to our commitment to advance Kentucky and create a community of belonging for everyone. While our mission looks different in many ways than it did in 1865, the vision of service to our Commonwealth and the world remains the same. We are the University for Kentucky.