You have an extremely tough job, I know this. I know that compassion fatigue is a real thing, and some days you probably feel one patient interaction away from a complete burn out.
I understand all these things because, I too, used to work with individuals who were struggling from severe mental illnesses.
I know what it feels like to constantly try to help people, but to feel like I'm beating my head against a brick wall.
I know what it's like to be yelled at, grabbed by the shirt, and called the kind of names that would ring in your ears for the rest of the shift.
I've been there.
But have you ever been a psychiatric patient?
Have you ever been on the receiving end of the wary glances from the staff gathered on the other side of the glass, when you ask if the doctor has been in yet?
Have you ever been mumbled at to come join a group therapy exercise, and feel completely embarrassed because you know you should actually be running that group, and not participating in it?
I've been there.
And I have so much to tell you about what it's like to be on "the other side".
What it's like to observe (and completely see through) all the behaviours that you think make you an effective healthcare worker.
You may smile at patients, give meds on time, do all the proper prompting for activities, and even spend your mandatory 10 minutes per shift talking to each patient.
But did you show up? I mean really show up?
I can tell you with absolute certainty that out of the 6 months I spent in 2 different psychiatric facilities, I only had one nurse ever show up.
She was the only one that would greet each patient with a warm smile, regardless of what state they were in that day. Because she understood, in her soul, that the illness was not THEM; she could understand that we were there because we were ill, not because we were hopelessly flawed.
She sat on my bed. She didn't look at her watch when spending her mandatory 10 minutes talking to each patient. She actually just talked.
She told me I would leave that place and I would be a good mother.
She told me that the medication would work, they just needed to find the right dose.
She told me that my newborn daughter would still love me, even though I couldn't love her at that moment.
She showed up.
It really is painful to say that there was not one other nurse that showed up the way she did. Sure, most were friendly, but they were also guarded. They would whisper among themselves at the nurses station, thinking that patients didn't know they were complaining about them.
They would offer no apology when you were abruptly changed to another room, with another roommate, and you broke down in tears because you had just gotten comfortable where you were.
And you were scared.
They would make no eye contact with you when you were allowed "ground privileges" and you stood at the door to be buzzed in and out. They just hit the button.
This is a huge problem.
I really don't know the solution for this mass apathy...you can't teach people how to care.
I do wish that every nurse would understand that we patients see them as people: and it doesn't seem to be too much to ask for that in return.
After I was discharged from the hospital, I learned more about this kind nurse and why she showed up everyday...
She also struggled from mental health issues; anxiety and depression, and was known for her open and honest dialogue about the need to reduce stigma and to genuinely help one another.
It is not just patients that are struggling.
It is your nurse, your teacher, your neighbour....1 in 5 Canadians struggle with mental illness.
She knew she wasn't any different than any of the patients on that ward, and so she was able to break down those walls of misunderstanding, and speak to us as people, and not as our illness.
Are you a stigma fighter or a stigma creator?
Are you the nurse that goes home and tells the incredulous and harrowing tales of what the latest "crazy person" did on your shift?
Are you the nurse that actually does refer to your patients behind their backs, as "crazy people" (sadly I know personally of nurses that do this)..?
Then you are a stigma creator. You are perpetuating the exact mentality that makes people afraid to come see you, afraid to be admitted into hospital when they need it the most.
You are part of the problem.
You have a hard job, but you went into that field for a reason. You wanted to help people, you wanted to make a difference. Maybe you don't yet know that everything you do or say to your patients during your shift makes a difference; good OR bad.
I beg you be the reason one of your patients smiles today, or is filled with hope (however fleeting).
Maybe one day, years from now, one of your patients will remember the impact you had on their lives. You won't remember them, but they will remember you.
Maybe they won't remember exactly what you said to them, but they will remember how you made them feel...
...and they will remember that you showed up.