Mental Health Check For Healthcare Professionals
When it became clear that COVID-19 was a pandemic in early 2020, many in the healthcare profession began referring to doctors and nurses as “like soldiers going to war.” But the truth is that managing mental health issues among healthcare professionals in the United States has always been an ever-present and tricky situation. The arrival of COVID-19 further highlighted many major issues that have always been there.
Registered nurses and other healthcare professionals willingly put the needs of others before their own under very stressful circumstances, many of which involve severe illness and loss of life. Moral injury is now a common term that more accurately describes how moral consciousness and values become injured for healthcare workers in the aftermath of horrific work events. These distressing events often produce extreme guilt and shame – and lead to mental illnesses such as depression, anxiety, and in extreme cases, even suicide.
Over the course of my nursing career, I have seen this many times. I have often tried to explain to friends and family (who don’t work in direct patient care) about the physical and moral demands that are placed on nurses. But unfortunately, I have found that if you aren’t there to witness it directly, then you don’t have the experience to really understand it. As a result, many healthcare professionals are gaslighted and think the problem is them, and not the healthcare system they are a part of.
It helps to look at the big picture and know that you are not alone in your struggle. Take a look at the below infographic to see how mental illness is affecting healthcare workers since the pandemic started and what you can do to help yourself.
You can find additional information about resources for frontline workers struggling with moral injury and mental health amid COVID-19 here.
Take care of yourself first, always.
Graphic created by Mozzaz.
Additional recommended reading:
Nurses are a critical part of the healthcare system during public health emergencies. They are highly trusted, compassionate, and willing to go to great lengths to protect their patients. However, with no clear endpoint, COVID-19 is not a typical public health crisis and has created a range of mental health challenges for nurses.
Today’s nurses are working under a cloud of fear and stress, which can lead to physical and psychological symptoms. However, there are steps that nurses can take to minimize the effects of high-stress levels and keep themselves and their families balanced.
A Two-Pronged Approach to Managing Stress
Stress levels cannot be managed through mental health strategies alone. Making healthy lifestyle choices can directly affect an individual’s outlook on life, energy levels, and mood. These five tactics can create a positive impact on mental health:
- Eat regular meals – focus on whole foods that decrease inflammation and build immunity
- Stay hydrated – choose water instead of caffeinated beverages, which can cause headaches and mood swings
- Exercise regularly – a simple walk with the dog can keep anxiety and depression symptoms at bay
- Limit alcohol consumption and refrain from smoking
- Make sleep a priority and practice good sleep hygiene
When it comes to managing stress levels, a nurse’s mental health is just as important as their physical health. Incorporating these self-love strategies into your daily routine can help:
- Practice meditation and/or mindfulness exercises
- Make time for relaxation
- Take mini-breaks throughout the workday to practice deep breathing
- Keep in touch with friends and family
- Limit exposure to media coverage of the pandemic
- Lower expectations of yourself and others, reminding yourself that “done” is better than “perfect”
- Practice positive self-talk, such as “nurses have a purpose and make a difference”
- Talk it out with colleagues or a supervisor, because nurses don’t have to walk this road alone
- Accept help when offered, and ask for support when needed
Help Children Manage Stress
Nurses with children at home have a responsibility to help them understand and respond to our changing world. Children may pick up on the stress that a parent is feeling and struggle to understand what is wrong. Children need to receive reassurance and guidance that’s centered around safety, consistency, and love.
Here are some tips to help children manage stress:
- Maintain a consistent family routine – establish set bedtimes and meal times
- Include children in conversations about the pandemic, but keep their age in mind and help them navigate their feelings
- Set family rules for proper hygiene
- Make routines fun for kids – consider singing during handwashing or developing games for wearing masks
- Remind children that the situation is temporary
- Allow children to help out around the house to give them a way to contribute – young children can carry dishes to the sink and help tidy up, while older children can take on bigger chores such as cleaning and yard work
- Reassure children that the parent is safe in their job
Additional recommending reading:
Symptoms of Excessive Stress
Nurses should self-monitor their mental health status on a regular basis and take action when necessary. Symptoms of depression can include:
- Sleep difficulties
- Persistent crying or sadness
- Feelings of hopelessness
Nurses who are forced to make clinical decisions that conflict with their ethical training may experience signs of moral distress, such as feeling guilty or ashamed. Other symptoms to watch for include:
- Difficulty with decision-making or memory
- Emotional outbursts
- Risky behaviors
- Withdrawal from social interactions
- Unexplained physical symptoms such as headaches, palpitations, and gastrointestinal issues
Nurses experiencing moral distress or consistent symptoms of depression should talk to their supervisor and seek professional help. Early intervention can be critical to working through moral dilemmas and extreme stress. Nurses seeking to connect with a mental health professional can contact their insurance provider for options in their area.
Mental Health Resources
Anyone experiencing suicidal or homicidal thoughts should call 911.
The American Psychiatric Nurses Association lists the following crisis hotlines:
It’s Okay to Take a Break
Nurses who have decided to step away from bedside nursing amid the pandemic should keep in mind that they are not alone. Taking a break and hitting the reset button can be the difference between a nurse developing serious mental health problems and a nurse maintaining their sanity. Some nurses may use this time to further their education from the comfort of their home by enrolling in an online nursing program. An online program can keep the nurse’s knowledge current while potentially offering a pathway to a better position and higher future earnings.
Self-care is vital to a nurse’s health and well-being, especially in the face of a pandemic. Nurses can fill their mental health “bucket” throughout the day using tools of the trade, and perform regular mental health gut checks to ensure that they get the help they need when they need it.
Cindy Blye, RN
Cindy Blye is a nurse-turned-writer with experience in Newborn Intensive Care, Pediatrics, and Case Management. Her works include pediatric nurse certification review materials, policies and procedures, training materials, nursing blog articles, health and wellness articles, and local business reviews. Cindy has three grown children and lives with her husband in North Carolina where she enjoys spending time with her family, gardening, and cooking.