How Five Nurses Protect Their Mental Health During COVID-19

By Joelle Y. Jean

Updated March 29, 2021 | Published February 4, 2021

Updated March 29, 2021

Published February 4, 2021

Joelle Y. Jean is a Family Nurse Practitioner and writer. She currently works at CVS Minute Clinic. She lives in Queens, NY with her husband, two little boys and cat, Zuzu.

It's 5:30 in the morning and, like clockwork, Karen Chung's cat begins to meow. Luckily, Karen is not bothered by the wake-up call. Karen goes for a six-mile run three times a week using the sunrise as her mental health break: "Running has become a meditative experience for me and helps calmly start my day."

According to a National Academy of Medicine report, nurses and physician burnout is between 35-54%. As a Family Nurse Practitioner at a pharmacy clinic, finding ways to prioritize her mental health helps Karen maintain her energy, strength and healthy eating habits. In this article, we’ll learn from five nurses about the ways they support and protect their mental health as we continue to experience the impacts of COVID-19.

Nursing burnout and depression

Nurses working in hospitals have higher rates of depression than the national average. When stress and anxiety are at an all-time high, it not only affects the nurse, but patient safety can also be at risk.

Burnout, stress and anxiety can lead to significant health risks for nurses including:

  • Diabetes

  • Hypertension

  • Weight gain

  • Weight loss

  • Addictions

Having a routine or outlet to protect your mental health can, in turn, help you care for your patients successfully. Mental health has become such an important topic that the World Health Organization (WHO) declared October 10th as World Mental Health day.

Self-care and protecting your mental health

As a nurse, self-care can be beneficial to your mental health. Self-care is simply what you do to take care of yourself. It's meant to improve your overall health. Self-care is different for everyone and can come in different forms, including (but not limited to):

  • Meditation

  • Exercise

  • Bedtime routines

  • Morning routines

  • Healthy or comfort food

  • Entertainment

  • Positive relationships

  • Work-life balance

  • Therapy

For example, Jillian Kobel RN, a trauma nurse registrar, enjoys a 10-minute nighttime skin routine. "You can't pour from an empty vessel," she points out. "And this reminds me of how important self-care is—especially during times of stress and uncertainty."

Sophie Mompoint RN, an OR nurse, began attending virtual personal training classes at the start of COVID-19. Working out has helped her focus on her mental health. "The other day, I had a heart transplant case. I was on my feet all day, but I knew I had my personal trainer class the next day. She's great! Meeting with her always makes me feel better, and I know I'm doing something good for my health."

Protecting your mental health through therapy

Depression has plagued nurses due to the long hours, workload and demands of the job causing a decrease in confidence and increase in call-outs. To combat this, therapy can be used as a way to protect your mental health.

During COVID-19, the stress of being a frontline nurse has only magnified. Some nurses, like Alicia Bennet RN, find speaking to a therapist helpful. "It's via telephone, and I speak to her once a week for about 45 minutes to an hour."

Since COVID-19, Alicia's therapist has diagnosed her with post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). According to the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs, 7-8% of the U.S. population will have PTSD at some point in their lifetime.

Alicia says her therapist helped her understand her triggers: "She let me know I had PTSD when I couldn't go into the unit without getting flashbacks of the patients I took care of and the ones I lost."

Finding the right therapist

Finding the right therapist can take some time since the first therapist you see may not be a good fit. Registered nurse, Fedghynie St. Germain, a Cardiothoracic Intensive Care (CTICU) nurse, has been struggling more with her mental health since COVID-19. "I had an online therapist for a couple of months, but it didn't really help." Fedghynie also had a difficult time "truly expressing" herself.

Therapy can make you feel vulnerable, especially if it is your first time. To find the right therapist:

  1. Make a list of potential therapists.

  2. Reach out to their office.

Ask questions about their experience. Some questions you can ask are:

  • Do you have experience working with nurses or other healthcare professionals suffering from work-related trauma?

  • When was the last time you worked with someone similar to me?

  • What licenses and certifications do you hold?

  • What is a typical session like?

  • Will I only see you or do you work with a team?

  • What are your strengths and weaknesses as a therapist?
    Consider switching therapists after three sessions if he or she isn't right for you.

Integrating mental health into the workplace

According to the WHO, countries only spend 2% of their health budgets on mental health on average. Luckily, some hospitals are taking the initiative to change this.

Some initiatives hospitals are instituting include:

  • Running wellness campaigns

  • Offering stress management programs

  • Offering discounts to gyms

  • Offering wellness classes

  • Offering personal coaching

  • Replacing vending machines with healthier prepared food options

Some insurance companies have taken notice as well and many have started to offer wellness screenings to employees. In return for completing a screening, employees are given a certain amount of money back as an incentive to stay healthy.

Nursing is a demanding, stressful and emotional job. As a nurse, it's important to be self-aware by creating routines that support your mental health and well-being.

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