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A silent epidemic: How to combat depression as a nurse

You may frequently hear people say, “Oh, I’m so depressed” if they’re experiencing a bad mood. But actual depression is a very common mental health disorder that interferes with your daily life on a consistent basis. 

» RELATED: Depressed nurses are more likely to make medical errors, research shows

It’s even more prevalent among nurses than it is among the general population, Nikeisha Whatley-León, a licensed clinical psychotherapist who is the system director for Behavioral Health Services at Northside Hospital in Atlanta, said.

“It’s been on the rise and we’ve been seeing more of it,” she explained. “It’s called the silent epidemic in nursing.” Nurses are constantly exposed to sickness, death, dying and grief – plus any stressors they may have in their personal lives – which contributes to an increased likelihood of suffering from depression.

And since the majority of nurses are female, their gender may also work against them. Women are more likely to experience depression than men, Dr. Toby D. Goldsmith, director of the Emory Women’s Mental Health Program, said in an email. She is also an assistant professor in the adult psychiatry outpatient program of Emory’s School of Medicine.

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“Among healthcare professionals in general, there is great concern about depression, burnout, sleep problems and suicide. Nurses are not immune to those problems because their job entails caring for others, long hours, lots of paperwork and sadly, not a lot of appreciation,” she added.

Nurses who are depressed will find that their symptoms affect their work, Whatley-León said.

“It definitely will affect the quality of patient care that you’re able to provide,” she explained. Your productivity may fall, your peer-to-peer interactions may suffer as you could have a short fuse and your emotions may spill over, so you become more tearful with patients.

Nurses who are depressed may also feel sad or empty and have less energy, Goldsmith wrote. They may stop socializing and have changes in sleep and appetite or may overindulge in alcohol. Of greatest concern, they may have thoughts of suicide or death.

A nurse who thinks they may be depressed should reach out for professional help.

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“Psychotherapy – especially cognitive behavioral therapy – and antidepressant medication can be very helpful, and can work fairly quickly, allowing someone to thrive at work and home again,” according to Goldsmith.

At Northside, the Behavior Health Services department offers services on an as-needed basis. The department has tried to decrease the stigma surrounding speaking up and to educate nurses and other health care professionals about the symptoms of depression, Whatley-León said.

Nurses are free to contact Behavior Health Services directly, or they can speak to a manager first if they’d prefer. The department uses the PHPQ and PHQ-9 as online assessments, so if nurses score above a 10, they should seek help, according to Whatley-León.

If you or anyone you know is struggling or contemplating suicide, call or text the 24-hour hotline at 800-273-8255. For more information, go to www.suicidepreventionlifeline.org.

Suicide prevention resources for parents, guardians and families

Suicide prevention resources for teens

Suicide prevention resources for survivors of suicide loss

More resources and programs at the Suicide Prevention Resource Center.

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