Mental Health Disorders among Nurses

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It’s no secret that nurses deal with a lot of workplace stress. Even before the COVID-19 pandemic began, a major nursing shortage put a strain on American hospitals and medical clinics. That strain has had a severe impact on nurses.  

And while nurses spend most of the time focusing on other people’s health, sometimes they need hospital treatment, rehab centers, and other forms of care for their own needs. Workplace stress has created several specific mental health concerns for nurses, including the issues listed below. 

Substance Use Disorders 

Consistent, chronic stress is a major risk factor for substance abuse. Often, people self-medicate with drugs and alcohol, especially if they feel like they have no other options. Nurses in particular might develop addictions for several reasons. 

For example, nurses who don’t get enough sleep, are fatigued from stress, and are still expected to finish a full load of tasks may turn to stimulants for energy and motivation. These drugs can include prescription drugs for ADHD and narcolepsy, as well as illicit drugs like cocaine and methamphetamine. 

Though these drugs do provide short-term energy, they are highly addictive. Some people who take drugs “just to finish this task” or “just to get through this shift” may find that they can’t stop taking them without help. 

Likewise, some nurses may drink alcohol or take depressant drugs to relax after a stressful shift. These drugs calm the nervous system, but just like stimulants, they are addictive. As many nurses have seen firsthand, opioids especially can create debilitating addictions. 

Nurses understand addictive drugs better than the general population, but because they have easy access to those drugs, they have an especially high addiction risk. 

Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder 

When people think about post-traumatic stress disorder, or PTSD, they often immediately think of soldiers on the battlefield. While combat often does cause PTSD, civilians can also develop it. 

Nursing-specific PTSD is more prevalent than many people realize. Any traumatic circumstance may cause PTSD, and many nurses have experienced trauma on the job. For example, a nurse may be injured by a violent patient or witness the deaths of patients. 

Nurses may also have a high risk for complex PTSD, or C-PTSD. This form of PTSD develops over time, as a result of persistent trauma combined with feelings of helplessness. Symptoms of PTSD and C-PTSD include: 

  • flashbacks 
  • nightmares 
  • anxiety 
  • startling easily 
  • uncontrollable thoughts 
  • insomnia 
  • anger and mood swings 

Compassion Fatigue 

Many nurses deal with compassion fatigue because of their careers. Though it’s not an official diagnosis, the existence of compassion fatigue is widely accepted in the medical and psychological fields. 

Compassion fatigue can occur when a person is repeatedly exposed to other people’s trauma, especially when that person has high levels of empathy. As they take on the stress of other people’s burdens, some nurses may struggle to take care of their own needs. 

People with compassion fatigue experience physical and mental exhaustion. Other signs of compassion fatigue can include: 

  • loss of empathy 
  • numbness
  • helplessness
  • insomnia 
  • brain fog 
  • social isolation 
  • sadness
  • anger
  • mood swings 

In extreme cases, compassion fatigue may even lead to PTSD. 

Anxiety and Depression 

Compassion fatigue and workplace stress can also cause anxiety and depression. Chronic stress can impact the brain’s production of serotonin, and serotonin is necessary for overall calmness and wellbeing. 

A lack of serotonin can make a person feel both depressed and anxious. As a result, many nurses may feel the following symptoms: 

  • persistent agitation and nervousness 
  • exhaustion 
  • loss of interest in hobbies and passions 
  • panic attacks 
  • persistent sadness 
  • emotional numbness 
  • feelings of hopelessness 
  • insomnia 
  • restlessness 
  • feelings of guilt or shame 

Your Mental Health Matters  

The nursing field needs several system-wide changes. In the meantime, individual nurses should remember that their own health matters just as much as their patients’ health. 

Nurses, like many people in caring professions, often ignore their own healthcare needs while they tend to other people. However, not only is this detrimental to nurses, but it also impacts their ability to provide care over time. 

If you are a nurse who is experiencing mental health difficulties, talk to your doctor about your concerns. When you prioritize your own health, the positive changes will impact all areas of your life.