I met Megan Johnstone while I was President of our university’s Mental Health Awareness Club, and she was Vice President. We didn’t really get along at first, but I admired Megan’s confidence and sense of responsibility. Eventually, we co-chaired UBC’s first Defeat Depression campaign, and became close friends somewhere along the way. Megan manages to do it all without missing a beat, yet isn’t afraid to show vulnerability. As an aspiring nurse (and a damn good one), she shares an important message about the importance of mental health in the medical field. -AL
“Okay so that’s 12 hours of classes, 2 assignments due, 1 quiz, and 24 hours in clinical this week, but remember – good self care!” my program loves to talk about self care. They love to tell us that we need to go for a hike, pet a dog, or talk with a loved one. But they also warn us not to trip and get injured – you’ll get kicked out; not to take too long with that dog – you can’t get below a 65% grade; don’t say too much about your experience – confidentiality! Every time they tell you to relax there’s a caveat.
Recently some of the alumni of my program came to speak to us as we reached graduation and one of them told us that she was struggling to fill her time off. I, much as I imagine she did, will come out of school with no hobbies, fewer friends, and huge amounts of debt. Not exactly a combination for good mental health. People expect a lot from the people who work in health care – there’s an expectation of perfection. You never get to have a bad day. The pressure that is put on us to know everything, notice the slightest changes, and have everything done on time is exhausting. It’s no surprise that nurses experience depression at twice the national rate. I wouldn’t be surprised if the number were even higher in student nurses.
In this program we look at people with mental illness diagnosis in similar way to how we look at someone with a cancer diagnosis. We ask questions like which neurotransmitter is out of wack? And we’re taught to assess for signs of abnormal behavior or thought the same way we would assess a blood pressure or lung sounds. We engage people in conversation then we annihilate their portion of the dialogue with labels. They hadn’t showered yet – they’re disheveled; they got excited about the topic – that’s pressured speech and excitability. We break down every single normal behavior in search of abnormality, but we never look at ourselves. We don’t take the time to process our emotions or recognize when we are in over our heads. I strongly believe that nursing can be a rewarding, heart breaking, and necessary career without breaking nurses. But in order for that to happen we need to cultivate coping habits in our nursing students that are healthy and simple.
It is important to build your own resiliency, to make working on your mental health as much a part of your routine as brushing your teeth. I wake up an extra 15 minutes early before my day shifts so that I can enjoy my cup of tea before I leave my apartment. Breaks should be protected as if they were the most precious jewel because they are. I lean on my colleagues – getting them to back me up when something is too much for me, and in return having their backs when I can.
I vehemently reject the saying that “nurses eat their young” by refusing to be chewed, refusing to allow people to make me feel small or dumb. Anyone who knows me will tell you that I am stubborn and dedicated, and I work hard to continuously build those attributes. When I have a bad day I debrief either by writing it down or talking to another nursing student, I let the feelings out and look for areas to improve.
Lastly I try to have a life outside of my career with friends who have other interests, my best friends are in business, finance, non-profits, and artistic endeavors – and they hate it when I talk shop, I guess not everyone sees the humor in a good poop joke.