The Truth About Depression and Anxiety in Your Nursing Staff

July 9, 2018
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Depression is one of the country’s invisible epidemics — more than 16 million American adults reported at least one major depressive episode in 2012. For those doing the math, that’s nearly 7 percent of the population. It affects people from all walks of life, all demographics and all income levels.

When it comes to episodes of anxiety or depression, one group of people that often gets overlooked is medical professionals — including nurses and their assistants. Let’s take a closer look at the truth about anxiety and depression and how it might affect your nursing staff.

An Invisible Epidemic

With so many people experiencing symptoms of depression every day, why are so many medical professionals with the same challenges going unnoticed? Upwards of 18 percent of nurses report feeling symptoms of depression, but no one seems to talk about it.

It’s not just the symptoms people are disregarding — it’s the causes that exist within the medical profession.

Medicine, as a whole, focuses on things professionals see and touch — physical problems with a physical solution. Medical professionals that don’t specialize in psychiatry tend to put mental illness on the back burner. However, ignoring mental health issues doesn’t help them improve — it only tends to exacerbate the causes and the symptoms.

A Ruthless Culture

Nursing is a career where only the strong survive — but it shouldn’t have to be that way. Many talented and trained nurses leave the field entirely because of this survival-of-the-fittest culture, often to the detriment of their patients.

Nursing is a stressful job by nature, but that doesn’t mean floor leaders should be creating an environment where survival depends on how well a nurse can turn off their emotions. Nurses live with near-constant stress, which is why it’s healthier to create an environment where nurses can lift one another up, rather than tearing each other down to try climbing a broken and sometimes harmful corporate ladder in the nursing profession.

This ladder leads to additional undue pressure on nurses. Family pressures can add to this stress — nurses often have no control over things like shifts, patients and other variables that can have a dramatic impact on their mental state and their ability to care for patients.

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Depression Symptoms

Depression symptoms vary widely from person to person, but they tend to have many similarities, including:

  • Feelings of sadness, emptiness, helplessness, etc. — Feelings that are outside of a person’s typical character or ones that make it more difficult for people to complete even the simplest daily tasks contribute to depression.
  • No interest in once-loved activities — People with depression often neglect their hobbies and friends, because they find it difficult to enjoy the things they once loved to do.
  • Trouble with sleep, appetite and concentration — Depression makes it more difficult to do things like concentrate on your job and get a good night’s sleep, and can even affect appetite.
  • Feeling less energetic or more irritable — These signs can be hard to judge — someone who works 12-hour shifts might seem a little less energetic than someone who works a 9-to-5 job, but appearing more and more exhausted and lethargic can be a sign of depression.

Anyone who suffers from depression can suffer from these symptoms. For nurses, the symptoms of depression and anxiety can manifest in different ways. Things to look out for include:

  • Doing more — Nurses tend to deal with the symptoms of depression by pouring themselves into their work, taking on more responsibilities.
  • Being more detached — Being slightly detached from your work in medicine is normal and healthy. Individuals with depression and anxiety tend to be more detached from their work, their patients and even their families.
  • Substance abuse — Individuals with depression and anxiety often turn to opiates and alcohol to self-medicate, leading to comorbidity of substance abuse and mental illness. For nurses, being constantly around prescription medications can increase the risk of substance abuse.
  • Making mistakes — The concentration and energy problems we mentioned above can also affect a nurse’s ability to do their job. Exhaustion leads to mistakes that can end up harming a patient or making the nurse more accident prone. Irritability can lead to nurses snapping at their co-workers or patients.

Nurses with depression or anxiety can’t do their jobs effectively — so why is no one talking about it?

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The Mental Health Stigma

No matter what field you work in, mental health is something people are reluctant to speak up about because of the negative stigma that surrounds it. People hide their battles with mental illness for fear of being fired or discriminated against because of their affliction. Even though it affects millions of people every year, we often look upon mental illness with disdain and even fear.

This fear is largely due to the portrayal of mental illness in the media. Movies and TV tend to portray people with mental illnesses as crazy, unpredictable and even dangerous to themselves or others. Newer shows and movies are starting to fix this media portrayal, but much of the damage has already occurred — and it prevents people from getting the help they need to manage their symptoms and function in the modern world.

For nurses and others in positions of power, it’s about more than just trying to get help. The stigma surrounding mental illness makes people reluctant to be under the care of a nurse or doctor who is struggling with depression or anxiety.

Treatment Options

Depression and anxiety treatment options for nurses are like those for others who are not in the nursing profession. Medication, therapy and lifestyle changes have all been effective options for mental illnesses. Even some foods can help offset some of the symptoms and make them easier to manage.

The key is to seek out professional help. The Americans with Disabilities Act protects employees from the risk of their jobs because of a mental illness, but that doesn’t stop people from fearing for their jobs when they seek help for their mental state.

The best thing we can do to help nurses who are battling anxiety and depression is to start talking about it. If we can eliminate the stigma surrounding mental illnesses, we can make it easier for individuals who are suffering from them to get the help that they need to manage their symptoms. Mental illness isn’t something to be afraid of, and the compassionate thing to do is to help people manage their illnesses, instead of hiding them.