The COVID-19 pandemic has changed many aspects of healthcare and highlighted the mental health issues faced by many. While new legislation and policies are necessary to address these challenges, nurses with a background in mental healthcare have an opportunity to be involved in the development of critical mental health initiatives.
What Are the Most Pressing Mental Health Concerns?
According to the National Institute of Mental Health (NIMH), more than 51 million Americans, or one in five U.S. adults, have a mental illness. Mental illnesses vary in severity, from mild and moderate symptoms to severe ones that impact daily living. Some of the most pressing mental health concerns are listed below:
Healthcare worker burnout. Even before the pandemic, healthcare workers experienced high rates of stress, anxiety, depression, and burnout. In April 2019, The Joint Commission found that more than 15% of nurses reported feelings of burnout, and the pandemic has likely contributed to a spike in nurse burnout rates.
Compassion fatigue and lack of healthcare worker support systems. By October 2020, when Inspire Nurse Leaders released a new survey focusing on nurses' well-being during the pandemic, 61% of participants reported having emotional and physical fatigue. More than one-third of nurses had difficulty meeting work and family demands, while one-quarter cited a lack of adequate support systems as a top concern.
Limited access to mental health services. Lack of insurance or the inability to pay out-of-pocket expenses or find a mental health professional accepting new patients may delay diagnosis and treatment. The American Psychiatric Nurses Association (APNA) reports that more than 75% of all U.S. counties have a shortage of mental health workers, and 96% require mental health providers.
Social stigma. There often remains a stigma associated with mental health diagnoses and treatment. This can prevent individuals from seeking help, which delays diagnosis and care and may encourage people to resort to harmful coping mechanisms.
How Can Nurses Facilitate Positive Changes in Mental Healthcare?
Although the factors contributing to the mental health crisis seem insurmountable, advanced practice nurses are particularly well-positioned to facilitate positive changes in mental healthcare. They can:
Keep the conversation going. The pandemic has stirred fear and uncertainty, but these emotions are not new for advanced practice nurses who frequently walk patients through difficult situations and experience a range of emotions themselves. It is important to continue having discussions about mental health with both patients and colleagues, as it diminishes the stigma, promotes resource-sharing, and encourages the use of screening tools.
Hone their interests. By pursuing an advanced practice nursing role, nurses interested in mental health and wellness can reduce the provider shortage and enhance their scope of influence. For example, the online Master of Science in Nursing – Psychiatric-Mental Health Nurse Practitioner (MSN PMHNP) program at St. Thomas University prepares graduates for autonomous practice as nurse leaders and mental health practitioners and primes them to take an active role in public policy creation. Students achieve this through 500 hours of clinical experiences and dedicated coursework, like the Influencing Health Policy course.
Utilize available resources. There are several resources available for struggling nurses. Consider downloading one of the many mindfulness and meditation apps, such as Headspace, or connect with other nurses and share their experiences by streaming the nursing podcast SHIFT. Take advantage of any counseling and mental health services offered by your employer.
Healing Mental Healthcare
Changes to mental health policies are needed now more than ever. The pandemic has highlighted the lack of available resources and support, especially for nurses and other healthcare workers, and individuals with limited financial means. Nurses who seek specialization as a PMHNP can help remedy the nationwide mental health provider shortage and bolster advocacy efforts to reduce stigma and strengthen access to these critical services.
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