Mental health awareness month. The time of year we hear a lot of talk on ways to notice and improve our mental space. In my role as Clinical Manager, I always like seeing the advice offered on social media, though I wonder how many nurses really take notice or accept help when offered. In a study conducted by IntelyCare, they sadly discovered that only 10% of nurses will seek out and accept help though 72% state that their employers offer services. It really makes you wonder why. Is it because we are too busy caring for everyone else? The stigma behind “needing help”, or not “being strong”? Fear of judgement or loss of position?
I have been a nurse for 9 years this August and was a travel nurse for 7.5 years of that time. I began in a cardiac step-down unit working for an amazing hospital which really developed my growth so that I was comfortable traveling after my first year. Things went swimmingly for years. I traveled in the IMC/ICU fields, often working at level 1 trauma centers because I love the adrenaline and seeing patients thrive in recovery from nearly impossible injuries and illnesses. There is no better feeling in the world to me than caring for a patient on day one through the day they wake up. I cry right along with the family every time. Of course, there is a lot of death, abuse, and misery involved with trauma. There are many times I would leave the hospital and build a pillow fort in bed I wouldn’t leave for days as I mentally tried to reconcile what I had experienced. I dealt with this up and down by leaving trauma when my cup was full and working on another unit for a contract or two. Or I would take a month or two off and spend it exclusively with my family. I had time to heal in ways that worked best for me before I returned to doing what I do best.
Interesting tidbit, did you know ICU and ER nurses who experience the constant fight or flight response are subject to adrenal gland fatigue? We literally wear the organ out! Have you gained weight suddenly and nothing will make it go away? Get your adrenal gland checked. You’ll be shocked at what replacement supplements will do for you weight and overall well-being.
Covid changed everything. When Covid hit New York in March of 2020, I immediately dropped out of my second to last semester of my acute care NP program and jumped on a flight. I had to go, my heart was with those patients and nurses whose lives were in upheaval and were being pushed way beyond what any human should. I cried the whole flight because I was scared of this great unknown.
I didn’t want to become the next healthcare worker casualty who gave her life to help those with Covid, but I would have felt much worse had I not gone.
As a matter of fact, I am crying now writing this, because I have never truly had the bravery to tell my story.
It was terrible. People often ask if it was anything like the news portrayed, and my answer is always that it was much worse. My first day in the hospital the manager walked into the room and started crying with thankfulness and relief. The hospital had made everything into an ICU room, including conference rooms, PACU, Med/surg floors and more and yet there were still patients in the ED dying while waiting for a room. We kept seeing the media saying that it was the elderly and frail who were dying, but that is not what we were seeing in the hospital. My youngest patient was 18 and I had everything from that age up. In a 40+ bed unit, we typically had at least half 50 or younger, many without the typical comorbidities. We taped pictures and notes from family all over the rooms so these people would remain people to us, so we could see the human under the plethora of tubes, wires, equipment. We listened to family talk to their unconscious family member using our iPads, many with young children, trying to instill bravery and courage to fight while we sat behind the screen knowing that person was likely never coming home. I can’t count how many last goodbyes I was a part of, how many hands I held and made promises I could never keep.
I hated it. I was doing everything in my power to save these people, using state of the art equipment and throwing all kinds of medications and all my years of experience at them to stave off death. I have never worked so hard in my life with what felt like no effect whatsoever. I hated feeling like a failure to so many. I hated when people were transferred to my unit, not because of the work, but because it often carried with it a death sentence. I hated listening to the last phone call between the patient and his or her family members knowing that was the last time they would ever hear his or her voice. I hated forcing the family to choose who got to come and tell their loved one goodbye, because only two were allowed. I hated seeing multiple family members admitted on my unit, and then watching them die one by one. And I hated driving or walking by the refrigerated semis on my way to and from the hospital every day knowing so many of the people in there were ones I had given my everything to help.
So, I broke down. I was staying in a hotel in Times Square provided by Hilton where I had no friends or anyone to talk to. I was holed up in this tiny room unless I was at the hospital fighting death. My friends and family sent many gifts, and we would get on Facetime to play games and talk, but eventually I couldn’t take the laughter. I couldn’t deal with the smiles on their faces while I felt there was no real happiness left in the world. I would hang up in the middle of calls and just cry by myself without telling anyone what was going on. I came home eventually and was met by a group of amazing people celebrating my return. I loved seeing everyone of them, but that was the last time I was able to be around another person outside my immediate family for several months.
Once I was in my home, I just couldn’t leave. I had become agoraphobic in a sense, where the outside was beyond what I could handle. My husband and kiddos rallied around me, and though they didn’t understand what I was dealing with, they somehow knew I needed their presence. I couldn’t be alone with my thoughts or stop moving. I completely renovated the main floor of my house in 1 month because I had to have something to do at all times, even when I should have been sleeping.
I knew I was in trouble, but I didn’t want to be “that” person. The dramatic person who is making Covid about them when other people are losing everything. The nurse who can’t handle her job. The weak one.
I remember the day it finally hit me that I HAD to get help. One of my best friends was having a birthday party, and I desperately wanted to go. I had not left the house alone in 2 months at that point, so I wanted to try and pick up a gift for her down the street. I hopped in my jeep and headed for the store. When I got there I kept driving and circled back home. I then sat in my car sobbing until my husband came out and grabbed me in a hug.
I couldn’t do it. I couldn’t be around people. And I couldn’t drive my car alone without wanting to drive myself into a ravine or a tree. I wanted to die.
My husband then sat with me as I messaged my healthcare provider for an emergency online visit. If it had been mandatory to do in person, I wouldn’t have gone. She met me online immediately and referred me to the office mental health professional, who also immediately met me online. Again, if it had been required to go in person, I would not have gone. They saved my life. I would not be here today if either of them had for one second made a requirement of me or had not taken me seriously. They opened my eyes to the constant, soul crushing guilt I felt every day for not saving more people, for having to choose which of the 3-4 ICU patients got the majority of my time each night essentially signing the death certificates on the others. They listened, they gave me suggestions and strength, they gave me medicine, which I am still taking, they validated my need for help, they gave me help in the form I needed it instead of what was “normal”.
Amazingly, none of my worst fears regarding seeking help came true. No one has judged me. No one has discriminated against me. No one has looked at me as weak or attention seeking. In fact, no one even knows I needed help unless I chose to tell them. Instead, I have been able to use my experience to help others who were feeling the same. People who were terrified to reach out but were willing to have a conversation with me.
My reaching out for help has done nothing but save my life and the lives of others. While I continued on as a Covid travel nurse until October 2021, my passion now lies with helping other nurses. I want others to see that we deserve help too. How can we continue to serve others if we are not working on ourselves as well? There are amazing resources out there, amazingly skilled mental health professionals who want to help us! They will meet you where you are and will give you the support you need to continue your career or to move to something new. I never would have imagined leaving bedside nursing, as my heart longs to heal, but now I get to help heal the healers.
Please don’t be afraid to reach out to these amazing resources we are providing. We want to see you at your healthiest, and no one will know you reached out unless you choose to share.
Keep these resources handy for any time you or someone you know is struggling with mental health issues: