May is Mental Health Awareness Month and we are turning the spotlight on nurse practitioners. According to the Nurse Practitioner Burnout & Depression Report 2022, six in 10 NPs are burned out and four in 10 are suffering from depression. But many of these providers are reluctant to get the help they need.
“Nurse practitioners inherently are wired to be caregivers and put self-care on the back burner,” explained Arlene Wright, DNP, a nurse practitioner for 22 years and director of advanced practice for Millennium Physician Group in Fort Myers, Florida. “In many ways, the mindset of prioritizing our well-being is almost a contradiction to the caring and curing model we embrace.”
Many of the NPs who participated in the survey said they rely on unhealthy coping strategies, including social isolation, drinking, and binge eating. Some use more beneficial methods like meditation, exercise, or talking to family and friends, but only 20% reported talking to an outside source.
Cost, barriers to care, and the stigma of seeking professional help can deter many professionals from utilizing these resources. The idea of self-help can seem all too alluring to some who pride themselves on their competence.
“We tend to have the perspective that we can handle our mental health on our own,” said Danielle McCamey, DNP, a nurse practitioner for 11 years and founder and chief executive officer of DNPs of Color, a nonprofit that works to increase diversity in nursing doctoral studies. “Sometimes that skews our realization of how bad our mental health is because we can still manage to be functional and productive in our roles.”
“In our profession, we’re told we have to push through it, so we put our heads down and barrel through it,” added Vern Langford, DNP, a nurse practitioner for 11 years and president of the Florida Association of Nurse Practitioners. “We’d rather not work burned out, but we all know other providers who are, and we don’t do much about it. We have the mentality of being in this sinking ship together. It’s just the unfortunate nature of nursing.”
They may be worried about how the stigma of getting therapy may affect their careers. “If an employer has to choose between someone who has disclosed a mental illness and someone who doesn’t have a mental illness, we’re afraid they may choose the one without,” Langford explains.
“Some nurse practitioners don’t pursue mental health support because they worry about how they’re going to be treated by other colleagues,” Langford added. “If they think the people around them may find out about it, they fear they may hold it against them We can’t get better unless we have an open conversation and destigmatize mental health issues.”
But Langford argues that the stigma of mental healthcare is more of a self-perpetuating stereotype and less of a reality.
“We don’t acknowledge our mental health issues because we’re afraid the people we work with are going to shame us, but the truth is once you open up, you’ll find other nurse practitioners are some of the most supportive, compassionate people you can talk to.”
Other NPs said they are worried about disclosing their mental health issues because they are worried it may affect their license to practice. Some state nursing boards require providers to disclose information about their psychiatric history. For example, if an NP spends time in a mental health facility, they need to report it when they go to renew their license.
But Langford says that the board will help any provider who discloses such information find care just like they would if they were suffering from a drug or alcohol problem.
“It’s a self-imposed doubt. Unfortunately, we live with this constant fear of losing our licenses. We don’t want to do anything to put our license in jeopardy.”
Meditation, mindfulness and wellness apps, and even talking to friends and colleagues can all make a difference. “A work bestie is someone who understands you as a person and understands what you’re going through professionally,” McCamey shared. “It’s that person or a group of colleagues you can check in with and talk about your stressors. Those check-ins are instrumental in maintaining mental health.”
The American Association of Nurse Practitioners (AANP) recently launched NPower, which connects nurse practitioners to mental health providers at no additional cost.