Woman nurse with a blue medical mask with depressed eyes.

The walls are closing in. At least that's what it feels like to most nurses and healthcare professionals right now. When you add the global pandemic to our already physically and mentally draining jobs, it's no surprise many nurses are feeling the weight of the world on their shoulders.

We have trained for public health emergencies and studied the protocols. When it actually hits, we don't feel prepared at all. The guidelines change daily, leaving us with the additional fears that come with working on the frontline and caring for a growing amount of COVID-19 patients. Unlike others, we are unable to isolate ourselves. Instead, we are working face-to-face with infected people daily and praying we don't bring the virus home to our families. It's times like these that truly put our mental health to the test.

The Facts About Mental Health and Nurses

Mental health issues aren't new to healthcare professionals. A study of 1,790 nurses across the United States showed that over half of the participants reported suboptimal health, both physically and emotionally. Those in poorer health had a 26% to 71% higher likelihood of making medical errors. In addition to affecting our personal lives, mental health issues can negatively impact our work too. Making mistakes in the medical field can cost us our jobs and even somebody's life.

Today, we find ourselves facing an unprecedented global pandemic. While U.S data is limited, a 2020 Jama Network Open study found that 50.4% of 1,257 healthcare professionals in China were experiencing symptoms of depression while working during the COVID-19 outbreak. They also experienced an increase in anxiety, insomnia, and distress. Based on these results, we can expect that U.S. nurses are feeling a similar strain as we prepare for more patients needing treatment for COVID-19.

It's clear that our jobs already put us at a higher risk of developing mental health issues. Factoring in what is happening in the world today, we are facing an increased amount of anxiety and pressure. We may try our best to protect our patients while keeping ourselves and our families safe, but it's only a matter of time before we start feeling the effects of burnout. It's a feeling most know all too well.

RELATED: Nurse Suicides: Unveiling the Shrouds of Silence

Recognize the Signs of Burnout

According to the World Health Organization (WHO), occupational burnout is a syndrome resulting from chronic work-related stress. Burnout affects people working in all industries, but healthcare professionals are more likely to experience it. This makes sense, as we are caring for others in their weakest moments. It's important to recognize the symptoms of burnout so we can deal with them appropriately. Signs of burnout are similar to symptoms of depression. They include:

  • Feeling exhausted
  • Trouble sleeping
  • Experiencing symptoms of sadness and depression
  • Feeling disconnected from others
  • Alcohol and drug use

It's crucial that we take appropriate action to prevent and reduce these feelings before they become overwhelming enough to affect our daily lives.

Practice Self-Care

It's easy to start neglecting your needs during stressful times, but it's even more important to continue practicing self-care during these circumstances. Take the time to focus on yourself and engage in activities that promote relaxation.

  • Get Sleep: Many of us will find ourselves working longer hours and picking up extra shifts to help offset the staffing issues during the surge in COVID-19 patients. It only takes a few extra shifts to begin feeling the effects of exhaustion. Make sure you are proactively setting the proper amount of sleep time needed to feel fully refreshed.
  • Focus on Nutrition: Our bodies need optimal support during these times of increased stress. Nutritious habits can help keep our bodies functioning at optimal levels. Stay hydrated and focus on eating a healthy, high-protein diet.
  • Connect with Others: As with most mental health issues, talking to others helps. Reaching out to family and friends for support is a great coping mechanism. Talking and venting to coworkers who are facing similar issues can be beneficial. It is important to stay connected with our loved ones. Establish a plan to maintain regular communication - - even while social distancing.
  • Stay Informed - But Don't Overdo it: Is it possible to "overwatch" the news during a worldwide crisis? The simple answer is "yes." The media can be alarming and stress-inducing. While it is important to stay up-to-date through reputable sources, focus on the facts and avoid getting carried away with too much information.

Know When to Ask for Help

There is a common stigma around healthcare workers discussing their own mental health issues, as we fear that others will think less professionally of us. In times like these, It's more important than ever to seek help when feeling overwhelmed. The Center for Disease Control and Prevention is a great resource with guidelines for coping with stress during the COVID-19 outbreak.

The Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration, SAMHSA, has also released a guide with tips for disaster responders on managing stress. They run a Disaster Distress Hotline, which provides 24/7 year-round support. This is a confidential service that provides immediate crisis counseling for people who are experiencing emotional distress related to any natural or human-caused disaster. You can talk to a counselor immediately by calling 1-800-985-5990.

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Janine Kelbach, RNC-OB
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