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High Risk of Suicide Among Stressed Women Nurses in Intensive Care Units

Published on: 23 Oct, 2020
Updated on: 23 Oct, 2020

Despair Photo Sydney Sims

By Julie Armstrong

local democracy reporter

Women on the frontline in the war against Covid-19 are said to be at heightened risk of suicide.

One in eight female nurses in Surrey’s intensive care units thought of taking their lives, the county council’s Suicide Prevention Partnership (SPP) found.

Before the pandemic, Surrey’s suicide rate for men was 12.3 per 100,000 population (England average 15.5), compared with just 4.2 for women (England average 4.9).

The partnership says Covid is adding target groups, due to an increase in isolation and despair, a probable rise in domestic and alcohol abuse, and a loss of people’s usual support systems and daily routines.

Co-chair Heather Caudle, also chief nursing officer at Surrey and Borders Partnership NHS Foundation Trust, said: “A fast-growing group we’re seeing in the context of Covid is female nurses, particularly those who’ve worked in ICU or critical care environments, where one in eight was expressing consistently high levels of suicide thoughts.”

Financial worries are also taking their toll with the number claiming employment benefits almost quadrupling in Surrey during the pandemic.

Andy Field, chair of Ashford and St Peter’s Hospitals NHS Foundation Trust, said the SPP should be working with the Department for Work and Pensions (DWP) to direct appropriate people to support.

“Having lost a very good friend six months after he lost his job, it’s absolutely essential we get linked into the Universal Credit system,” he said. “There’s a whole area there that is being missed.”

The number claiming Universal Credit and Job Seekers Allowance in Surrey from April to June 2020 increased by 278% compared to the similar period in 2019.

All of Surrey’s borough and districts recorded higher increases than the South-east (170%) and the country (121%).

Mr Field said benefits assessments also needed to be more considerate of the needs of people with mental ill health.

“The big problem with mental health and DWP comes in assessments: they are totally inappropriate for mental health patients,” he added.

“They’re designed for physical, how far can you walk et cetera and the whole system is actually designed to increase the stress.”

Dr Helen Rostill, Surrey Heartlands Health and Care Partnership director for mental health, said: “This is an absolute priority for us because normal people are finding themselves losing their jobs and falling into hardship.

“I think we could do some shaping work in how to take those assessments forward in a more compassionate way.”

Numbers of suicides rose during the last recession, said Helen Raison, co-chair of the SPP and also consultant in public health at SCC. “We don’t know whether we might see that again during Covid and potential financial issues.”

There were 255 suicides in Surrey between 2017-2019 and 292 in the recession between 2009-2011, according to Public Health England.

Ms Raison added: “In Surrey, by looking at our real-time suicide surveillance data through the police, which is not yet validated so I’m saying this with some caution, we are seeing more probable suicides at home.

“The rates in those 18 to 29 look as if they might be a bit higher.”

There had been a particularly high demand for suicide prevention training and mental health first aid in the past few months.

In light of the emerging risk factors, the partnership asked the coroner for his records to do an audit of suicides.

One priority is to provide better information and support to those bereaved by suicide. The family, friends and carers of those who die have a one in 10 risk of attempting suicide themselves.

Surrey Suicide bereavement service is delivering one-to-one support for 230 people a year and five peer-support groups are being set up, but both initiatives are funded only until 2021-22.

Surrey Heartlands Health and Care Partnership, which covers about one million people, is getting £625,500 over the next three years for suicide prevention and response.

See what support is available at and

For anyone seeking mental health support, the Samaritans helpline is on 116 123 and Surrey mental health crisis is on 0800 915 4644. Both are available 24 hours a day.

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