Nurses Need to Stop “Eating Their Young”


As it was first said by nursing professor Judith Meissner in 1986, “nurses eat their young,” and last week, that adage proved true for one young nurse who took her own life. Rhian Collins, a 30-year-old nurse and mother of two, committed suicide after being bullied by her coworkers at a U.K. psychiatric hospital.

In light of this tragic news, we find it is our responsibility to have a frank and open discussion regarding nurse bullying and suicide. Because, at its core, the nursing profession is a caring one. It takes certain levels of empathy and heart to do what nurses do, day in and day out, and that should not only be reserved for patients, but also for your fellow nurses.

Stress and burnout among nurses are, understandably, pervasive. Shifts are long, hospitals are understaffed, and tensions are high, but to put it in perspective, research suggests that at least 85% of nurses have been bullied at some point in their nursing career, and the number could actually be higher, as it is often speculated that incidents are under-reported. One study has stated that depressive symptoms among nurses clock in at 18%, and another shows that number as high as 41%. Even more alarming, a U.K.-based study published last year found nurses are 23% more likely to commit suicide than women in general, and the BBC has reported that nurses are four times more likely to commit suicide than people working outside of medicine.

All of those staggering numbers, and yet, the culture of nurse-on-nurse bullying has not changed much, if at all, since it was first said that “nurses eat their young.” However, there is hope, as many younger nurses have been put through the paces of school-based anti-bullying initiatives as they have grown up and stigmas of mental health issues have began to lessen. But unless and until a different mindset takes over the nursing profession, the problem will persist.

You cannot eat your young and expect them to survive.

We know you are stressed out. We know your hours are long, your back is aching, and you probably didn’t get to have a real lunch break today. We are not negating those stresses in any way. However, it doesn’t take much effort to just be kind—to yourselves and to your fellow nurses. You may just save another life in doing so, and that is what nursing is all about, saving lives.

If you are having thoughts of hurting yourself or others, we encourage you to seek help by calling the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 800-273-8255 or by texting 741741 to have a conversation with a trained crisis counselor via the Crisis Text Line.

Disclaimer: The viewpoint expressed in this article is the opinion of the author and is not necessarily the viewpoint of the owners or employees at Healthcare Staffing Innovations, LLC.

4 Comments

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  1. 1
    Vicki Chamberlane

    This begins in nursing school. Instructors are as cruel as football coaches (ref. University of Maryland). Education does occur without “eating our young”. Survivors who become instructors tend to bully students into quitting or becoming survivors.

  2. 2
    Diana

    Those numbers are just in the U.K. , if you had been able to gather statistics from the US those numbers would have been much higher. I work in a dept that is notoriously known for being a difficult area to work in. It is a high stress area and when new people are hired they are targeted, not by just one nurse but by a pack of nurses and they are relentless. Watching them is like watching a pack of wolves gathering around a weak animal, slowly stalking, surrounding it and closing in for the kill. It’s really an awful thing to witness. Several years ago they berated a co-worker to the point that she, also, took her life and for a few months the nurses were better. But as their memories faded of what they had done to this poor woman they began again, watching for another weak nurse and attacking as before. We have a new manager now and I am hopeful he will bring this to a stop. We lost many good nurses because of their hateful actions. The pack is made up of older, experienced nurses who should be mentoring the new nurses that come into the unit. This unit is a definite example of “eating their young” and it was tolerated by our last manager, who should have been terminated years ago. Yes, many reported the incidents to our manager, Human Resources and even administration. Everyone turned a blind eye. It makes us feel hopeless and helpless knowing that no one cared. I hope this isn’t the norm for other hospitals. I hope they have managers and administration that cares and does something to stop things like this from happening. During a time when more nurses are needed we should be more nurturing to these younger nurses mentoring and teaching them all we know. If they stay in nursing, they will be the ones caring for us older nurses. I want to instill as much knowledge as possible in them. This way I know someday I’ll have an excellent nurse caring for me and my family.

  3. 3
    Martha Shatley

    The previous comment is so true and the bullying continues up the corporate ladder. It has been so pervasive throughout my career that when I learn that a colleague is an RN I immediately become more cautious wait for the personality disorder or neurosis to emerge. Passive aggressiveness is another frequent trait among the profession. For this reason I would never encourage any one else to enter the profession.

  4. 4
    BC

    I was bullied. I experienced a severe four year depression following dismissal after 29 years of service in my nursing profession. Working with women, many more petty than the bad girls in high school; especially because they have the power to ruin your career and in my case; life.
    I was told my nursing practice was excellent; however, they just didn’t want me any more. And that’s that.
    I felt like I lost everything. My identity, my confidence, my friends, my livlihood, finacial stability, physical and mental health. I felt lost.
    Working in an “at will employment” state allows anyone to terminate or be terminated without reason.
    I’m working hard to keep myself positive and move in an upward direction; but, this behaviour NEEDS TO STOP.
    I began nursing to heal people and now the profession has become less of a calling than another job for some.
    I now, need to heal myself.
    Those who bullied me and others; SHAME ON YOU!

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