By Paul Sisson

The San Diego Union-Tribune

For help

Anyone contemplating suicide is urged to call the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 800-273-8255 or visit suicideprevention lifeline.org

SAN DIEGO — Nurses commit suicide at a significantly higher rate than the general population, according to a recently released study from a team of researchers at the University of California, San Diego.

Examining nationwide data on violent deaths from 2014, the only year for which occupation information is included, the team found that suicide rates were nearly 58% higher for female nurses and 41% higher for male nurses.

It’s no surprise to Dr. Judy Davidson, a UC San Diego nursing and psychiatry researcher who co-authored the paper. After all, she notes, society has long demanded a certain stoicism from nurses that it has not expected from other professions that find themselves in similar situations.

“The truth is that people do get scarred by these events. They talk about something that happened 10 years ago just as if it happened today,” Davidson said. “We haven’t been caring for ourselves properly. For example, policemen and firemen get time off if they witness a death, but nurses have been expected to just keep going on to the next patient with maybe a 10-minute break in-between.”

But that’s starting to change, especially at UC San Diego hospitals, which have been at the forefront of a growing push to make mental health care a routine part of working in professions rife with stress, pressure and plenty of opportunities to observe and react to many of the most difficult moments that people experience.

In 2009, the university’s School of Medicine created the Healer Education Assessment and Referral program — HEAR for short — that has worked to take a more proactive approach to self-care among health care workers.

The program urges employees to reach out for help in that moment when they’re starting to feel overwhelmed.

For Marti Neuenswander, that moment came about 18 months ago. She was caring for a dying patient she had come to know well over a long stay in the Bone Marrow Transplant Unit at UC San Diego Jacobs Medical Center, where she now works as an assistant nurse manager.

At the same time, she said, there was extra stress in her personal life. The combination gradually snowballed into a stress level that started to feel overwhelming.

“I was feeling at that time like I would come to work, and I would give my all and do my best to really connect with my patients, and then I would go home, and I would try to manage challenging situations there,” Neuenswander said.

That feeling, she said, jogged her memory about the HEAR program, which seemed to be getting good reviews from others. One confidential email later, and she was sitting with a counselor whose conversation and referrals to outside specialists felt like just the pressure release valve she needed.

There have been more than 500 such referrals since HEAR started, a fact that makes UC San Diego psychiatry professor and researcher Dr. Sidney Zisook particularly proud. Having co-created the program with Dr. Christine Moutier, a former psychiatry professor serving as medical director of the American Foundation for Suicide Prevention, Zisook said the idea was always to reach medical professionals far before they ever have a suicidal thought.

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