“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 started with small talk about the weather. The calendar had just turned to May. It was getting warmer, flowers were blooming, and 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 pays the bills”. My standard response 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 pressed for more details. We talked shop, reminisced, and then we tackled the elephant in the room.
May was Mental Health Awareness Month and SB confided that it was one of the hardest times of the year for her. The reason she wanted to meet up.
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 to ‘relax’. 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 nursing program.
Somewhere between graduation and settling into her role at the hospital, she stopped taking her ‘study aid’. Slowly, she found herself 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 she made jokes about ‘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, she felt her mental health was finally improving.
As her therapy sessions continued, SB realigned her work schedule to better accommodate her new routine and therapy. Scheduling provided the freedom to pursue creative outlets she finally had 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.
An internal struggle
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 and maintain her mental (and physical) health, it wasn’t for sympathy. It was in hopes that a possible solution could be proposed to 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.
SB’s story, while unique, has many details that mirror other healthcare providers experiences while 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 they are 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 who is struggling, this is an especially crucial time. The facade of the perfect provider must be cast aside and now is the time to discuss your own struggles. Whether they are with wellness, physical, or mental health. Shatter the mask of perfection!
If you are suffering…
Talk about your own experiences. Discussing our own mental, physical, or emotional health struggles and putting them in the spotlight, 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, especially 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!
If you are a provider who is struggling with exhaustion or making your health and wellness a priority, watch this video before you decide to leave nursing! Now is the time to take action and create change.