Nurses are often the first medical professionals a patient will see, and most nurses have a great deal of contact with patients throughout their care, said Maysa Akbar, chief diversity officer at the American Psychological Association. In addition to the stress they face as medical professionals, Black people are generally more likely to have feelings of sadness, hopelessness and worthlessness than White adults, according to Mental Health America.
Black nurses are also dying from the virus at a disproportionate rate. Almost 18% of the US nurses who have died from Covid-19 and related complications as of September were Black, but Blacks make up only 12% of the nurse population, according to National Nurses United.
Throughout Olivia Thompson’s 12-hour shift as a cardiac and Covid-19 nurse in Chandler, Arizona, she closely monitors the oxygen levels of several patients at a time and works with other medical specialists to heal them.
Thompson says there are times when she said she comes home “absolutely defeated,” so on those days, she gives herself the space to process her emotions by talking with her family and watching television.
“If I don’t take care of myself, I can’t turn around and go back to my next shift and be a good nurse,” Thompson said.
She hasn’t sought professional mental health support so far.
More than 17% of Black adults in the US had a mental illness in 2019, according to the National Institute of Mental Health. But people in the Black community can have a hard time reaching out for mental health care, said Cheryl Taylor, associate professor and past chair of the school of nursing at Southern University in Baton Rouge, Louisiana.
She said it’s important to feel safe when opening up to a mental health care professional, and that’s not easy for Black people, who have a history of not being respected in the mental health world.
Black people often receive lower quality mental health care, said Shalonda Kelly, associate professor of psychology at Rutgers University in New Jersey. It’s also less likely they’ll receive culturally competent care, according to the American Psychological Association.
One way to increase the chances of Black people receiving quality mental health care is to see a mental health professional of the same race, Kelly recommended.
Thompson says she’s looked into mental health support in the past, but navigating those resources for the first time can be “overwhelming,” which has contributed to her not taking that first step.
Nurses shouldn’t hesitate to reach out for mental health support when they need it, Taylor said, because it means they’re practicing what they preach as nurses.
“Give yourself permission to be as compassionate with yourself as you are with others,” Cheryl Taylor said.
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