COVID-19 PTSD – Don’t Give Up on Nursing

Kathy Quan RN BSN PHN

Kathy Quan RN BSN PHN


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Front line nurses and those in the behind-the-scenes supporting roles are experiencing many various symptoms of Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder and sharing thoughts on social media that they may not return to nursing once this COVID19 crisis is over. Nurses have become weary from extremely long hours, lack of PPE and people dying after long stressful battles without family present just for starters. 

According to the Mayo Clinic, PTSD is a mental health condition. It is triggered by traumatic tragic events that are either witnessed or personally experienced. No one is immune, but some are more deeply affected than others. Nurses, doctors and first responders commonly have symptoms of PTSD from single tragic events. In this case, it’s been weeks and months of events that seem to have no end in sight. The lack of preparation has only added to the problem as state governments and employers, facilities and staffs adjust to life on the frontline. Many have compared it to wartime conditions and describe the experience as being “shell-shocked” or having “combat fatigue.”

With no real consistently effective treatments for the virus, the loss of life has been unconscionable. Hundreds of front-line nurses, doctors and first responders without appropriate protection and repeated exposure have succumbed to the Coronavirus as well. 

Confronting PTSD

PTSD will only become worse if it’s not confronted head on. The event will continue to haunt for years. Venting emotions and feelings is essential as is self-care. Symptoms include flashbacks, nightmares, severe anxiety, and having no control over thoughts of the event. 

Tragic events happen everyday in nurses’ lives, but the COVID19 has stretched on for months now and even when it does subside, it’s predicted to rise again when flu season starts. It could be around for 2 years and even maybe longer.  With good self-care practices, strong coping skills, and time, most will recover without issues. However, in the current situation this is much more challenging, and PTSD is more common. 

PTSD may not become evident at first. Sometimes it can take years to rear its ugly head. Risk factors that increase the risk for PTSD include an intense or long-lasting traumatic event, working in a job that increases exposure to traumatic events, having experienced previous traumatic events. This describes nursing, especially in the COVID19, quite well. 

Suicide Risk Increased

Those with predisposed issues such as mental health conditions, anxiety, depression and lack of a strong support system from family and friends are at further risk.  Complications of PTSD can be very disruptive to lives, relationships, work, and health. Suicide is one of the most detrimental effects. Others include eating disorders, increased drug and alcohol use, depression and anxiety. Anyone experiencing worsening symptoms or thoughts of suicide need to seek help. The suicide hotline is available 24/7 (1-800-273-8255) where trained counselors are available to help. Veterans can call the same line and press 1 to reach the Veterans Crisis Line. The risk is real. Doctors and nurses are hurting and taking their lives. Everyone needs to be on the alert and ready to help. Anyone experiencing suicidal thoughts can also call 911 and ask for help. Many cities have a crisis team who can respond, and if not, trained emergent care is available. 

Self-care is Essential

With all of this to contend with, it’s not surprising nurses are considering leaving the field. Nursing is simply one of the most physically and emotionally draining professions. During a crisis there is little time to decompress, and yet it’s needed more than ever. Baby steps at self-care are essential! Burnout is on the rise. Sleep, eating nutritious foods and having the love and support of family and co-workers is not an option. Taking mental breaks, don’t listen to the news. Music and art and reading are uplifting and allow for mindlessness. Exercise is necessary just to get the endorphins pumped and running. Meeting physical needs is essential to ensuring the strength to carry on is there when needed. 

Don’t Give Up Now

That nursing education was costly, not only financially, but in the hours of sweat and the multitude of tears. The NCLEX was the most difficult test ever created. To throw it all away may seem cathartic in the face of the trauma and PTSD, but in six months might become the greatest regret ever. 

Being on the front line may not be the best choice right now and maybe not ever again, but there are many roles in nursing that are equally as valuable and will provide rewarding career paths. Experience is the best teacher and nurses have much to share. Consider a path to becoming a Nurse Educator either in nursing schools. The shortage of quality nurse educators makes it very hard to keep up with the demand for good nurses. Nurse educators can also work with facilities or in home health or hospice. Home health or hospice field nursing is a whole different experience from hospital care with many rewards. Teaching courses online is another great option for sharing experience and expertise. 

Consider Other Nursing Career Paths

There are roles for nurses in software and information technology, quality and compliance, medical instruments and pharmaceutical sales. Schools need nurses to care for injuries, fevers, sore throats and tummy aches as well as educating children about hygiene, sanitation and prevention of illness and injury. Industrial health nurses do much the same for adults in the workplace. Insurance companies utilize nurses in a variety of roles such as case management of chronically ill patients or for wellness checks or physical exams. 

There may be many changes in health care in the coming months and years. For instance, Telehealth has found its niche and may be expanded moving forward especially if social distancing is necessary for long periods of time. Even so, the positives of reducing exposure and the efficiency of telehealth may make it more prominent for non-emergent situations. 

Before hanging up the stethoscope, explore options to use that education and experience. Don’t just toss it aside. Continuing education for nurses opens many opportunities to explore other options. Deployment to the front lines doesn’t have to be a deciding factor. Supporting roles are just as necessary and rewarding. Nurses are the backbone of the healthcare system and essential to the well-being of the planet. 

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