I walk into the room and look at the figure of a 20-year-old college student lying in the bed after a deliberate overdose, intubated and on a ventilator, the steady rhythm of the machine making her chest rise and fall and the steady beeping of the heart monitor somewhat reassuring that my patient was still alive. The parents sitting by her bedside with tears streaming down their faces. The mother speaks to me, “If only I had said something. I thought it was only stress of being in college and having to take final exams; if only I had said something…”.
If only I had said something…these are words none of us wants to say or hear, but too often this is exactly what happens. Frankly, I’ve heard those words too many times in my professional practice. How many times have you wondered if someone you know has a mental health disorder? Maybe, you wonder if you have a disorder? When we look at the statistics, the impact of mental health issues —which is defined as any mental, behavioral, or emotional disorder, excluding developmental and substance use disorders — is sobering. Mental health issues affect 21.2% of adult females and 24.3% of adult males, per the National Institute of Mental Health (NIMH, 2016). None of us are immune to being touched by someone who has a mental health disorder. From generalized anxiety disorder, panic disorder, post-traumatic stress disorder, bipolar disorder, major depressive disorder, and so on, we have all known someone or taken care of someone who has a mental health issue. Perhaps the greatest issue we face is being able to recognize when someone needs professional help or when we need professional help.
Although we, as health care professionals, recognize that managing mental health disorders is as important as managing any other disorder, the stigma in the community that mental health issues are a sign of weakness or that the person can snap out of it, still exist. We must take an active role in educating the community on when a person may have a mental health issue and not just feeling anxious or feeling down about something that happened in their life. People who entertain risky behaviors, such as prescription drug misuse, exercise extremes, compulsive buying, and risky sex may have an underlying mental illness (http://mentalhealthamerica.net
The theme of Nurses Week is Nursing: The Balance of Mind, Body, and Spirit and mental health is certainly a part of that initiative. May is also Mental Health Month. The National Institute of Mental Health (NIMH) is leading the initiative on mental health awareness and management by outlining objectives to define mechanisms of complex behaviors, recognizing those who have mental health issues, and when intervention is necessary, and striving for mental health illness prevention.
As nurses, we must speak up when we suspect someone may have a mental health issue and encourage that person to seek professional help. We must have the courage to speak up even if that person is our colleague, in our family, or even ourselves. No more should we hear, “If I had only said something…”.
Anne Dabrow Woods, DNP, RN, CRNP, ANP-BC, AGACNP-BC, FAAN
Health Learning, Research & Practice