May is Mental Health Awareness Month, but caring for our mental health and that of our family and friends is a priority that needs no month, season, or special circumstance. That may be especially true for nurses, who are often so busy that even if they recognize signs of mental distress in themselves or in family or friends, they push their concerns aside, downplay their importance, or emphatically deny there’s a problem at all.

    Denial is a powerful coping strategy. It’s tempting to dismiss growing anxiety, depression, irritability, chronic headaches, or other emotional and physical signs as “I’m just having a bad day,” or “my colleague/family member seems a little out of sorts lately, but I’m sure they’ll get over it soon.” But like any other problem or illness, mental health issues are best addressed early, when a friend’s expression of concern or our own recognition of personal mental malaise should prompt, positive, immediate steps to restore healthy mental and emotional functioning.

    The National Alliance on Mental Illness lists several warning signs of potential mental illness for health care professionals. While experiencing each of these occasionally may not be a cause for concern, when one or more of them become persistent and oppressive, professional counsel may be of help:

    • Feeling irritable or angry
    • Feeling anxious, depressed, lonely, or constantly sad
    • Reliving traumatic events
    • Isolating yourself and lacking trust in others
    • Experiencing compassion fatigue, burnout, or moral injury
    • Difficulty sleeping or sleeping too much
    • New or increased substance use
    • New or emerging physical issues including digestive or appetite problems, increased aches and pains, sexual or reproductive issues, and difficulty with cognition and memory

    The old adage about an ounce of prevention being better than a pound of cure is paramount when dealing with mental health issues. Mental Health America, a community-based nonprofit dedicated to promoting mental health, believes mental health conditions should be treated long before they reach the most critical points in the disease process. That organization recommends, first, prevention, and when symptoms first appear, developing a plan of action to stop and hopefully reverse progression of the disease before it becomes overwhelming.

    If you are concerned about a colleague or family member who is showing signs of mental distress, the American Psychiatric Association offers some tips for opening the conversation and guiding them to help. The APA recommends showing your concern and willingness to listen without judgment, using “I” rather than “you” statements, such as “I’m worried about you, “I hope you will consider talking with a counselor,” NOT: “you are,” “you should” directives that are likely to create resistance.

    Even if you are not experiencing mental health issues at present, the organization Healthy Nurse, Healthy Nation offers practical suggestions to prepare for that eventuality. Their suggestions include taking advantage of any programs your employer may offer, including mental health screening, telehealth programs offered by your health care provider, and other preventive measures. The organization’s website also offers a number of self-care suggestions to relieve stress, as well as informative links for nurses and employers.

    As always, if you need mental health support while on assignment, we urge you to call your Freedom recruiter at 866 463-0385. We also have an Employee Assistance Program (EAP) through Anthem that offers a variety of services, including mental health and crisis counseling.

    *If you or someone in your family or workplace are considering suicide, immediately call the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 800-273-8255.*

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