The moment I have been waiting for has finally arrived.  I’m finishing nursing school and graduating with a Bachelor of Science in Psychiatric Nursing.  This past week has been a period of reflection for myself.  I’m proud of this accomplishment, alongside the many other things I’ve been able to do in that time.  There have been tears – you know the ones – staying up all night cramming for a test, thinking, “I’m going to fail and then I’ll never be a nurse!” and also “I don’t know anything and I’ll never be a nurse!” I’m forever thankful to my classmates and friends I have made along the way because I don’t know if I could’ve come this far without them.

I’m also spending time thinking about my future and maintaining good physical and mental health while practicing. During my contemporary issues course this past year, a colleague and I decided to talk about PTSD and nursing, and that is what this post will be focused on today.

I wanted to become a psychiatric nurse for the same reason most people decide to enter nursing: I want to help people.  What I didn’t fully realize going in is just what that would entail and how physically and emotionally demanding this profession is.  Here is an excerpt from Manitoba Nurse’s Union report, titled “PTSD in the nursing profession – Helping Manitoba’s wounded healers”.

“Encountering extreme cases of abuse and injury, witnessing more deaths than the average person, feeling like you could have done more to save a life, seeing firsthand the signs of intense grief and pain: all of these are experiences the general population would find traumatic, yet form the bulk of daily occurring experiences for nurses. Irrefutably, the exposure nurses have to trauma and critical incidents have lasting effects on their mental health.”

Nurses are privy to our patients’ private lives.  People don’t enter hospitals because they are doing well.  People go into hospital because something is wrong with their physical and/or mental health.  Psychiatric nurses see patients’ inner demons and their trauma history, drug/alcohol abuse, people who hear voices, self harm, people who have suicidal thoughts and those that make attempts on their lives, and the list goes on and on. Our job is to ensure patients’ safety and walk with people on their road to recovery.  It’s heavy stuff.  Everybody responds to these stressors differently.  Some people seem to be very resilient and are able to manage all these without much difficulty.

However, all nurses are at risk for developing PTSD during their career for the reasons listed, among many others.  The ones above relate more specifically to psychiatric nursing.  Developing PTSD is a risk that should be taken seriously and not ignored.  Acknowledging that it’s an occupational hazard is the first step in protecting ourselves.  Below, I go through some preventative measures you can take or share with a fellow health care worker.

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1)      Be aware of the issue – Nurses are at risk for developing PTSD as a result of the work we do.  One of the key findings from MNU’s report states that “approximately 65% of MNU’s members say that compassion fatigue is a common element in their work environment, furthermore 52% of members have stated that critical incident stress and PTSD are common in the workplace”.  Spreading awareness of the issue helps destigmatize it and may even help others who are suffering to seek out help.  Nothing can be done before acknowledging that a problem exists in the first place.

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2) Take care of yourself – Practice what you preach.  I spend a lot of time teaching patients about self care and healthy coping strategies.  However, it’s not always easy for me to get myself out the door for a walk or run, or to ensure I’m eating proper meals.  Basic self care is essential for good physical and mental health.  Having a good support network of friends and family whom you trust and feel comfortable talking about your feelings with is also helpful.  Having a positive work relationship with another nurse or mentor you trust is also beneficial.  All these things are ways to protect yourself from becoming harmed by physical and emotional stressors.

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3)      Get help when you need help – After an incident occurs at work, debrief with your team.  Even if your facility doesn’t have an official policy on debriefing following traumatic incidents, be the person to step up and check in to see where everyone is at once the dust has settled.  Sometimes just talking about what just happened can be helpful to sort out what you’re feeling.  However, recognize the signs and symptoms of PTSD and get help if you feel you need it.  We all want to provide the best care possible for our patients, but how can we if we truly are hurt?  You can’t pour from an empty cup, and there is nothing wrong with seeking help to take care of yourself.  You can  learn more about PTSD here.

I encourage everybody to read the report I mentioned above as it is far more thorough, and its writers are more knowledgeable and write more eloquently about this issue than I am here.  As a soon-to-be nurse I want to have a long, full career.  Being aware of trauma and PTSD I may experience will better help me help myself.  Providing excellent patient care isn’t possible without giving myself the same level of care I would give to others.

About Cassie S

25 year old psychiatric nursing student. I live with depression off and on and have since I was 12. Learning to ride the waves as they come. I'm an introvert who enjoys reading, art, and spending time with friends and family. I also really enjoy being active: running, biking, hot yoga, dodge ball and slo-pitch are a few favourites.

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