After placement on the acute mental health ward, my mental health was not in the best state.
The ward was stretched to the limit – there was a lot of abuse, burnout and no imminent solutions to all of these problems. I wanted to help myself by using some mindfulness techniques, but I’ve had problems with sleeping and was reliving traumas from the ward and reliving traumatic stories I heard.
I still wanted to be there for my patients, and it was increasingly hard. Still, the placement was not long, and I was able to balance it all to finish it. Unfortunately, the problems with sleep and the associated tiredness were not going away.
I was also made aware by people around me that I became irritable and was isolating myself. I felt that others were tired of listening to my problems so I suppose I kept my distance on purpose.
“I have a right to go through my emotions at my own pace”
I reached out to the university’s wellbeing team and they were very helpful, taking the time to talk to me and listen. They reminded me of the problem of vicarious trauma.
Vicarious trauma is described in the literature as “an accumulative process and not situated around an isolated event. It represents strong feelings and reactions to human suffering, producing grief, outrage and sorrow and ultimately loss of hope. These emotions grow when nurses repeatedly witness another’s pain and loss”.
I started thinking about it and observed myself becoming very frail and emotional. I was, however, boxing it up because I could not afford to deal with it now when I have so many obligations at university. On the other hand, I knew that when the box was full, it was going to explode, and I should deal with all of it sooner rather than later.
The decision was made. I wrote an email to my university and applied for counselling sessions. I asked the library services for support with starting my dissertation and I started talking to people around me. I decided egoistically (I thought) not to engage with other people’s problems outside of work as usual and to not try to save the world, even when I felt I should.
Most importantly, however, I allowed myself to have all of these feelings, to cry, to be irrational and lazy and spend all day just doing things I really like. I allowed myself to think that if I was not able to carry on, I could take a gap year. It took a lot of pressure off me.
Then I listened. I listened to the people who were validating my feelings, who were looking at my work and saying I did a lot of hard work and I should be proud of myself.
I started feeling it, I actually achieved a lot, and now, it’s me time. I am going to plan everything and take only as much as I can feel I can handle. If I fail, I am going to hug myself, and if I can’t deal with emotions, I will call the university helpline to vent. They are just one call away, and they are amazing.
I will allow myself to go through all of it and become smarter and more skilled in helping myself and knowing when to stop, breathe and ask for help.
I acknowledge that I witnessed horrible things and listened to upsetting stories. I have a right to go through my emotions at my own pace and ask for help to be a better person and better nurse.
So if you feel like vicarious trauma and burnout relate to you, please reach out. There are some amazing people waiting to help you and you are important.
Olga Debiec is a third-year, dual field MSc nursing student (adult and mental health), University of Southampton and 2022-23 Nursing Times student editor