Should Depressed and Anxious Nurses Be Allowed to Work?
An article in Clinical Nurse Specialist, “Depression in Hospital-Employed Nurses” (read the abstract here), has caused a bit of a stir in the social media sphere lately. The study found that nurses who work in hospitals have symptoms of depression at twice the rate of people in the population at large.
It is important to note that this does not equate to these nurses having a diagnosis of depression and that the study based its data on self-reported symptoms.
However, depression is an issue among nurses, as are other psychiatric diagnoses such as anxiety, PTSD, and ADHD. I wrote a personal blog post on this topic several days ago and received disturbing e-mails about it. This is first of all disturbing because such is the stigma regarding nurses with depression that these nurses did not even want to comment publicly and only second of all because of their content, which was bad enough. One reader, a nursing instructor at a large BSN program, wrote that she works with a faculty member who believes strongly that any student with any psychiatric diagnosis should not even be allowed to become a nurse. Please, find me a nursing student without anxiety. Anyone? When I was in school, we were an antidepressant-, anxiolytic-, and Maalox-fueled bunch.
To me, this opinion is jaw-droopingly idiotic, particularly coming from a presumably educated healthcare professional. I can’t ask this unknown nursing instructor what is behind this bias, but I wish I could because we need to address mental illness in our ranks. If even the nationwide depression incidence of 9.4% (vs. the 18% rate found in the Clinical Nurse Specialist study) applies to us, then removing depressed nurses from the floor would literally nearly decimate our hospital workforce. That doesn’t even include nurses with anxiety, panic disorder, PTSD (known to be common among critical care nurses), ADHD, and other treatable illnesses.
The results of this study say to me, “Nurses need to talk to each other about this condition so that we can help each other.” If nearly 20% of nurses were found to have breast cancer or diabetes or heart disease or anything other than a mental illness, I feel confident that an outcry would be heard. But a mental illness? A few peeps here and there.
It has to be the stigma. Nurses know to keep their mouths shut about these easily treatable illnesses lest they be shunned or fired or, apparently, not ever allowed to become nurses at all. Keeping a condition secret contributes to shame, which contributes to depression. The statistics in the cited study surprise me not in the least; I’ve often said “if you are going to take every nurse off the floor who has a problem, you’ll be left with an empty hospital.”
We are humans just like everybody else. We get divorced, our friends and family die, our pets die, we get sick, we experience anxiety and depression, and we have to cope with all of this with smiles on our faces as we care for others under extremely stressful conditions in which cracks in our facade are not to be displayed. In what other profession is such perfection demanded? Would it be optimal for every single nurse, given that we literally have people’s lives in our hands, to lead a stress-free life and be free of any physical or mental illness? Of course it would. But it isn’t possible.
Rather than strive for the impossible or, worse, continue on our current trajectory of pretending that that scenario exists despite all evidence to the contrary, why not educate each other and our employers? These illnesses can be devastating, but they can also be treated—but only if we are allowed to recognize them and admit we have them.
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