A bit of a weird one to talk about, no? You’d think so. But with student nurses coming under incredible pressure to succeed on the course, it’s really important to understand how to safeguard mental health over the three years of study, placements, and exams.
A survey held by The Insights Network and Dig-In questioned over 17,000 UK students on a variety of courses. 24% reported they’d thought about taking their own life and 69% said they felt anxious and refused to discuss their issues with family or friends for fear of being labelled and stigmatised. IPPR reported that students reporting mental health issues increased fivefold, with over 15,000 students declaring a mental health issue in the first year of their studies.
Research also shows female nurses are 23% more likely to commit suicide than the general public, likely feeling overwhelmed and possessing the knowledge of methods of suicide, thus making any attempts fatal with a low risk of resuscitation. With Sally Cooper, Lucy de Oliveira and Alexander Hocken all taking their lives over the past few years, we need to ensure we’re looking after our own health, as well as that of others.
1. Take care of your body
With 14-hour night shifts and seven-day working weeks, nursing school is full of pressure. It can be horrendous getting into a pattern of night shifts while trying to manage a home as well as fit in time for revision, so make sure you eat a balanced diet. It’s really easy to just pack a bag of crisps, some kind of sarnie and a chocolate bar for an energy boost, but overloading with carbs and sugar won’t do anyone any favours.
How to do this: Prepare healthy meals full of fat, protein and vitamins for those evenings when you have no energy to cook and take healthy snacks to shift and for those oh so dull lectures at uni. Try to cut out carbs and avoid using sugar as a quick energy fix.
2. Drink plenty of water
As a nurse, you know the damage dehydration can cause. Everything from UTIs to delirium can result from not taking in enough fluids and losing electrolytes. You know you’ve seen it before in your patients, so why do you think you’re any different? Take time to ensure you’re keeping your intake up, and you’ll be surprised at how much easier the little things become.
How to do this: Make sure you drink at least 200mls eight times during the day. A cuppa in the morning, a glass at break time, a swig of juice during shift and repeat. Any mentor who says you don’t have the time to drink is a bad mentor. Remember this.
3. Remember your value
We all get stuff wrong and we all make mistakes. But this doesn’t mean you’re a bad person and it certainly doesn’t mean you’re a terrible nurse. Placements are there to ensure we learn from the many, many mistakes we all make. And trust me, every nurse – whether they’re an NQN or a charge nurse – has a plethora of cringe-worthy memories where they’ve done something tremendously stupid. You were good enough to get a coveted space at uni (think of how many students you saw fail their interviews) and you’re good enough to succeed.
How to do this: Reflect on the times you’ve been complemented by a patient or your mentor. What did they say about your practice that was good? If you can’t think of a time when this happened, don’t worry. Plan to be a mentor for the new nurses starting in the cohort below yours. Speak to your university about buddy systems – they’re a great way to prove to yourself just how much you know.
4. Developing a stress-busting strategy
Stress is horrendous, but it’s part of life. Whether it’s exam pressure, med calc nerves, or a horrendous placement, it’s vital to learn a few coping mechanisms that work for you. But combatting stress and reflecting on step three above, you’ll be able to power through any eventuality in a healthy way.
How to do this: Take one minute out to focus on your breathing, in and out, in and out. For one minute, tense all the muscles in your feet, then legs, then bum, then chest and arms, and release. Focus on how the tension feels, then focus on relaxing your entire body. These little exercised can help you physically cope with stress.
5. Surround yourself with your faves
Whether that’s your partner, your family, or your friends, surround yourself with people who have been there for you through thick and thin. Because as much as you need someone to champion you, sometimes you just don’t want them to push you. Sometimes, you just need to forget it all and remember life before the 6Cs and competencies and OSCEs and essays. Nursing school is great, but it’s not your life. Put down the books and enjoy life.
How to do this: Take a night a week to totally forget about uni, and spend time with people who are positive, friendly and welcoming. Not sure your friends cut the mustard? Find new friends at uni, or using social meetups in your city.
6. Speak to someone
Sometimes, stuff happens in life that impacts on everything else. Whether it’s a breakup, bereavement or just something troubling you, speak to someone to pour out all your worries. This could be university and student wellness support services, or the Samaritans who I can personally attest to. It’s really unhealthy to bottle everything up (and as someone who hates revealing my weaknesses, I know personally just how terrible this is) so allow yourself the kindness to release your fears. Validate how you feel. It’s OK to feel angry. It’s ok to feel upset. Yes logic says they’re just feelings, they don’t change the present situation, but who cares? They are YOUR feelings. Nothing else, not even your own logical brain, matters.
How to do this: It might be impossible for someone close to you to understand so make a list of services available to you, and keep the list handy. You might be reading this now and not need them yet, but if anything changes you’ll have a to-call list ready to go.
7. Speak to your tutor
If you’re stressing about deadlines and worried about failing then sometimes university can help you, too. They’d rather help you cope with your feelings and concerns than have you crumple into a heap of negative thinking and helplessness. Just because everyone else seems to be doing well doesn’t mean they are, and tutors might be able to get you extra support, extended deadlines and extra time for placement and exams.
How to do this: request time with your tutor or lecturer to discuss how you’re feeling. And also, have a list of things that might help. By going to your tutor with your problems and what you think will help, this helps them work with you rather than suggesting solutions that won’t be of any use to you at all. If they can’t make what you need to happen actually happen, they might be able to find a workaround.
Do you have any coping tips for when school just feels like it’s all too much?