Suicide…Nurses Who Take Their Own Lives

photo by Jean James

photo by Jean James

What drives a nurse to commit suicide?  In most cases the answer is simple; she or he has made a mistake, and usually that mistake has cost someone else their life or limb.  So why then did Jacintha Saldanha, the nurse responsible for transferring a hoax phone call to the Duchess of Cambridge’s nurse take her own life?  I’m not sure the answer is so simple here.

Jacintha Saldanha violated the British Department of Health‘s confidentiality code of disclosing information with appropriate care when she passed on an unconfirmed phone call made by two Australian D.J.’s posing as Queen Elizabeth and Prince Charles of England.  The D.J.’s, who were looking to solicit private information about the Duchess of Cambridge, decided to play a prank by placing a phony phone call to King Edward VII Hospital.  While impersonating the Queen of England and the Prince of Wales, they were easily able to deceive Nurse Saldanha into transferring them to Kate Middleton’s primary nurse, who then went on to divulge extremely sensitive medical information about the Duchess’ hyperemesis gravidarum while live on the radio.

Like all nurses who realize they made a mistake, I have no doubt Jacintha was filled with shame and embarrassment for the public spectacle that ensued after that phone call.  But was it worth taking her life?  Is any mistake worth taking your life?

The medical profession has one of the highest suicide rates.  The pressure to ‘Do no harm’ sits heavy on the shoulders of all who take that oath.  But what comes after ‘if harm is done’?  How do we counsel the person who may have made the mistake?  I know in America the answer is always the same, “You better get yourself a good lawyer!”  Then you’re dropped off at the edge of a steep cliff and left to fend for yourself.  Nurse Saldanha must have been dangling  precariously off the edge of that cliff.

According to news reports she did not share her mistake with her husband or two children.  I can only imagine the torture she put herself through.  You see, as a nurse, you don’t need to kill someone, or maim them, to feel you have done harm.  I’m guessing Nurse Saldanha felt betraying the Duchess’ privacy was harm enough.  Nurses are their own worst enemies  first.  What punitive damages come later could never possibly equate.

When a nurse or medical professional makes a mistake, immediate counseling and crisis intervention should be provided.  Nurses should not have to bury themselves in grief, fear, and shame.  No one wants to make a mistake.  Nurses work hard, are given heavy assignments, work long hours, are understaffed, expected to stay late, skip lunch, and rarely make it to the bathroom, all for the sake of caring for their patients.  We cater to abusive family members at times, abusive medical staff at times, abusive administrators at times and even abusive patients, and all the while we are expected to keep a smile on our face, and behave like ‘good girls’.

My heart breaks for Nurse Saldanha and her family.  Though I don’t know her professionally or personally, the reports I have read shed light on the kind of exemplary nurse, wife, mother and human being she was.  I’m saddened that her mistake and the insurmountable pressure that followed led her to take her own life.

Prime Minister David Cameron was quoted as saying, “There will be many lessons that need to be learned.”  This is true, but the one main lesson that needs to be learned is what drives a nurse to commit suicide, and how can we prevent this from ever happening again?