“It feels like the air is thick and heavy. It’s like you’re drowning, except no one can see you struggling, because it’s just air…slowly suffocating you but it’s clear so no one knows it’s there.” -SB.
SB and I met at a crowded coffee shop. We tucked ourselves into a booth in the back, away from the hustle of those seeking caffeine. Over coffee and tiny raspberry-filled sugar cookies, we chatted.
We made small talk about the weather. The calendar had just turned to May. It was getting warmer, the flowers were blooming, and we agreed we were both looking forward to summer. She asked me how work was, and in my usual refrain I replied, “it’s going well; it keeps the lights on” a standard response for when I’m not really sure what to say.
I typically don’t talk about my work at the hospital, but since SB left the healthcare world a little over a year ago, she asked for more details. We talked shop and reminisced and then the elephant in the room appeared.
She mentioned that May was Mental Health Awareness Month and confided that it was one of the hardest times of the year for her. (The reason for our meeting.)
SB had battled mental health issues for years. Growing up, she received a misdiagnosis of ‘test anxiety’ instead of depression. Despite her constant exhaustion and marathon naps, she was handed a bottle of pills for depression. She never took them.
In high school she struggled with grades and was again labelled a ‘poor test taker’. Her lack of ability to stay focused, combined with constant sleeping, got her another prescription. This time for a popular stimulant medication. She was able to focus better, get her grades back on track, and was accepted into a local college.
Somewhere between graduation and settling into her role at the hospital, she stopped taking her ‘study aid’. Slowly, she found herself increasingly more exhausted, sleep deprived (despite hours of sleep each night) and apathetic-a trait she hadn’t possessed since her early years. Coworkers remarked that she was a bit disheveled some days and made jokes about the ‘nursing hats’ coming back just to cover her crazy hair.
SB would eventually see a therapist and get a diagnosis of clinical depression. With proper medication and intensive therapy sessions, she felt her mental health was finally improving.
As her therapy sessions continued, SB realigned her work schedule to better accommodate this new routine and therapy. Scheduling provided the freedom to pursue creative outlets she finally had the energy for.
A few months later, SB’s unit got a new supervisor. Changes were on the horizon and everyone needed to be more flexible. SB found herself on a rotating night-shift schedule. She was making fewer therapy appointments, working more ‘highly encouraged’ overtime and had abandoned her free time artistic pursuits. The new boss felt SB wasn’t pulling her weight, so she set up a meeting.
Trying to make the decision to share your mental illness struggles, especially in the workplace, can be difficult. People are afraid to seek help or discuss treatment due to fears of judgement or being shunned by others. Many individuals choose to live in silence and fight their mental battles alone.
When SB decided to confide in her supervisor that the new scheduling made it more difficult for her to go to therapy appointments and maintain her mental (and physical) health, it was in hopes that a possible solution could be proposed that benefitted both her and the hospital.
SB wasn’t prepared for the lack of empathy from her superior. She also wasn’t prepared for the backlash and commentary she was met with each shift moving forward.
After a particularly stressful few months, SB was increasingly unhappy. Her co-workers and boss were not supportive or understanding. They ignored SB and referred to her mental health with a chuckle. The stress of being ridiculed combined with emotionally taxing patient outcomes, was overwhelming. SB made the difficult decision to leave healthcare.
It didn’t need to happen this way.
SB’s story, while unique, has many details that overlap with other healthcare providers struggling with mental health issues.
If you are like one of the 44 million Americans suffering from a mental health disorder, please know that you are not alone. Reach out to someone. A friend, a coworker, an anonymous help line (1-800-273-TALK).
Hiding your struggle can create shame, fear, or toxic thoughts. These can quickly spiral making the situation worse and further alienate you from friends, family, and support systems.
What can you do?
If someone is confiding in you, hold space in your conversation for them. Keep their secrets and struggles in confidence (unless someone is in imminent danger). Sometimes knowing another person is listening, and that you are not alone can make a huge difference.
If you are a healthcare provider, this is an especially crucial time. Now is the time to discuss our own struggles with mental health. The facade of the perfect provider must be cast aside. Shatter the mask if you will!
What can you do as a provider?
Talk about your own experience. Only by discussing our own mental health struggles, and putting them into the spotlight, can we help create a safe, destigmatized space for everyone. Transparency is key in creating a place for discussion, healing, and planning for wellness.
May is Mental Health Awareness month.
Let’s focus on raising awareness and lifting the stigma associated with mental health issues, including those experienced by healthcare providers.
I challenge you to check in with yourself and with a friend or loved one before the month is over. Ask important mental health questions and really listen to the answers. We cannot afford to lose more providers due to unmet mental health needs or fear of being stigmatized and ostracized by these issues.
Let’s raise awareness, normalize the conversation, and destigmatize mental health issues for everyone. Together, we can ensure we, and our colleagues, have access to the resources and assistance needed to be effective providers.
Join the conversation in the comments below! Let me know what Mental Health Awareness means to you!