A New Psychiatric RN Faces Her Career, and her own Mental Health
by Caitlin Irish
Listen to Editor in Chief Gabriel Nathan read this post aloud:
Podcast (mental-health-aloud): Play in new window | Download
Maybe I should change my major, I thought to myself for the millionth time, picking at the deep blue of my college-issued scrubs. I knew that, if I thought of jumping ship this often, it was a sign I was studying the wrong thing; but I was stubborn. I didn’t want to give up. Besides, I felt like this field was calling to me. No matter how little I liked med-surg settings, I knew nursing was where I belonged. But I didn’t know why, to be honest. I didn’t know any nursing students who hesitated at the thought of getting to insert an IV, or perform an uncommon procedure. As much as I hated to admit it, I was dreading my future career.
Until we pulled up to the psychiatric hospital.
When I began my mental health clinicals; everything changed.
The facility itself wasn’t exactly amazing…in fact, not long after our clinicals there, I wrote and published a poem about the harmful behaviors I saw the nurses engage in towards their hurting, vulnerable patients. One nurse rolled her eyes when I told her that my patient stated that they were suicidal. Another referred to the patients as inmates, and said they deserved to be there. But the most subtly heartbreaking instance occurred when a patient attempted to put a brace on his leg while in a wheelchair. Struggling, he called to the nurses for help, who sat staring ten feet away. When no one came to his aid, the patient threw the brace out of frustration and left the room. The staff didn’t even react.
He was begging for a miniscule act of assistance, and they couldn’t even give him that.
It makes me angry to this day, and I’d love to give those nurses a piece of my mind. But the patients themselves were wonderful; revitalizing my interest in nursing, and making me excited to come back the next day. I loved learning about each patient’s history, about their diagnoses and experiences and struggles, and felt privileged that I got to talk with them and try and help them…as best I could as a student, anyway. And I was dumbfounded. I always thought I’d be more interested in obstetric nursing as opposed to mental health, or labor and delivery. But mental health had stolen my heart…and looking at my own history, it’s not exactly surprising.
I have obsessive-compulsive disorder, panic disorder, and generalized anxiety disorder.
I understand the importance of mental health more than most neurotypical people. I’ve been in the trenches of awful despair that felt too deep to ever escape. At the very worst, I picked my skin raw, spent nights researching irrational obsessions, and hated myself for waking up each morning to face another day in hell. I have cried to my now-fiancé that, if this never got better…if I had to feel this horrible every day…I didn’t think I’d want to keep living.
8 Tips for Telling Your Own Story
Do you have a story to tell? Chances are, you do. This free guide will walk you through our Editor in Chief's top suggestions.
If I wasn’t privileged enough to get counseling at the very moment I did, I truly believe I would’ve gone to inpatient treatment soon after beginning college.
Maybe that’s why I loved working with psychiatric patients so much. I could relate. I knew how the disease processes worked. I had an idea of different treatments that could help those who were deeply hurting. Plus, if nothing else, it was incredibly interesting. But I was scared of committing wholeheartedly to my love of psych-mental health. It is a very specialized area of nursing, and much different from the med-surg units associated with nursing. I was scared and nervous, and didn’t know if I could commit to the field without rounding out my education.
This is all to say I denied my mental health interest for a considerable chunk of time. I was always so sure I would go into something relating to babies, like pediatrics or post-partum. We actually had our obstetric clinicals in the semester after mental health, and I was really not a fan. I still love babies, but the information we had to learn was not interesting to me, and I found it incredibly hard to grasp each individual lecture. Luckily for me, I stopped denying my love for mental health nursing not long after starting that semester. My only concern at that point was whether my own experiences would bias my career, or if I would care for patients based on what I felt, and only that. But I did my research, and concluded that, as long as I stay aware of countertransference, I can control and stop it from interfering with the care I give to my patients. I smiled after that as I imagined my future, and all the beautiful things I would do. While our clinical facility initially drove me away from the idea of psych nursing, I eventually accepted that mental health itself was the field where I belonged. Once I realized that, and allowed myself to get excited about my career, I never thought about changing my major again.
Now, I’m in my last semester of school, and have a job lined up as a psychiatric acute care nurse in a well-known hospital. And even though it’s months away until I even take the NCLEX, I’m allowing myself to dream of every awesome thing I’ll be doing. This time, I’ll be working in a facility that seems to care deeply about its patients, and hires people who share that value of fiercely caring for the most vulnerable among us. Unfortunately, I know that within the psych field, working with people who have bad intentions is practically inevitable. While this will be heartbreaking to witness, I am determined to advocate on behalf of my patients, and will ensure I know the proper protocol for dealing with anyone who may be cruel towards our patients. It will not be easy, but I’m determined to make the mental health field a little less scary for anyone who utilizes it, even if my impact is ultimately small. Mental health is an incredibly underserved area of nursing, and I consider it a privilege to become a part of the specialty I know all too well. I have felt the pain of untreated mental health, and know exactly how it feels to be scared of not getting better. I know my mental health symptoms are not universal among psych patients, and I need to be careful to prevent my own experiences from clouding my clinical judgment. But I’m incredibly excited to help those who need it, in the compassionate, empathetic way that everyone deserves. Everyone deserves a safe space to run to when everything around them crumbles.
And I cannot wait to become a safe space for someone in the moment they need it most.