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To the Patient Struggling With Mental Illness, From the Heart of a Nurse

I read a post recently about how someone was absolutely unjustly treated and shamed in the hospital because of stigma around mental health issues. The post was moving and a much needed call for compassion in the health care arena.

Then, I read the comments. As a nurse, I was saddened and hurt by some of the generalizations and condemnation toward health care workers. I know these comments may have come from a place of pain inflicted by health care workers’ words, and for that pain, I’m truly sorry.

I’m sorry, because I know this pain firsthand. Not all nurses and doctors are immune to mental health battles. As a nurse, this is what I want all my patients to know:

To the patient struggling with mental health,

I’m sorry for the stigma. I’m sorry when we as healthcare workers question the authenticity of your struggles and symptoms. I’m deeply sorry for the way you may experience shame due to the way we talk to you or treat you. I want you to know you’re not alone. We may or may not admit it, but as healthcare workers, many of us experience these struggles, too.

When I was still in nursing school, I did a rotation on the psychiatric unit. Unfortunately, I was in the midst of a deep slump of depression at the time. I’ll always remember the night before my first shift there. I stayed up until the early morning hours debating suicide. When 6 a.m. rolled around, my lungs were still breathing and my heart was still beating. So I put on my scrubs and drove to the hospital. Nothing seemed wrong on the outside.

As I entered the locked psychiatric unit with my peers, everything seemed wrong on the inside. I felt so out of place. I couldn’t stop thinking, “If only they knew. I shouldn’t be here as a nurse. I should be here as a patient.”

I managed to make it with my “I’m fine” mask on until group therapy time came. A nurse taught about coping mechanisms, and I found his points to be extremely applicable to my life. Enraptured, I paid as close attention to the talk as the girl two seats down, who was admitted for depression and was feverishly scribbling down notes.

I gripped my pen tightly and tried to be nonchalant about note-taking. I was so afraid my nursing peers would notice and know the truth: I very well could be a patient here. When I glanced around to make sure they weren’t looking as I jotted down words, I was surprised to see them fighting off sleep, eyes glazed over and staring off into space. I felt worlds away from them.

In that room during group therapy, I felt the heaviness of the fear of judgment, the weight of stigma and shame. I learned that day what it may feel like to be a patient in a hospital with a mental health struggle.

Why do I tell you all this? Because I want you to know, we as nurses are not all that different from you. Even now, with my nursing school days behind me, I regularly spend time in my therapist’s office, working through depression, anxiety and post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) symptoms from volunteering in an under-resourced hospital overseas.

The truth is we’re really not worlds apart. Sometimes we nurses may be frazzled and seem to be in a hurry when we care for you in the hospital, but we’re not so different after all. Some health care workers don’t get it. It’s true, just like in the rest of the world. Some get it, and some don’t. But please remember that some do. Some of us are struggling right alongside you in that hospital room. We whisper prayers for you in between answering call lights and ringing phones, even on the days we don’t have the time or courage or strength to explain how much we identify with you.

During shifts when I do get to sit and have those conversations with you about your fears, anxiety and the overwhelming stress of being in the hospital. On the occasion it’s appropriate and therapeutic to share some of my story with you, having you as my patient makes my day. On days I’m not able to have those conversations, please remember we still care. Whether the reason you’re in the hospital is for mental health or if it’s just one more thing to battle while you deal with a physical illness, it’s our desire that you feel loved and cared for by me and all other hospital staff who come into your room.

On all those days, the good and bad, the ones when we succeed and fail with our words and actions, please be patient with us. We are still learning. Learning empathy, how to relate and how to bring awareness about the realities of mental health struggles to our coworkers.

We are not enemies, you and I. It’s not you, as the patient who’s mentally sick, and me, as the completely put together, capable nurse. No, no, no, that’s not how it should be and that’s not how it is. It’s us. You, me, the doctor, the x-ray technician and every other member of your healthcare team, all of us fighting our own battles and learning how to love each other better. To the patient struggling with mental health: We, your nurses, are with you. We are for you. You are not alone.


The heart of a nurse

If you or someone you know needs help, visit our suicide prevention resources page. 
If you need support right now, call the Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 1-800-273-8255.