Practicing Self-Care

USD nursing professors Katie Lais and Michael Terry


Nurses and frontline health care workers have worked relentlessly over the past couple of years, facing surge after surge, witnessing thousands of deaths and surviving severe staffing shortages.

Now, research suggests that most health care workers are wrestling with psychiatric symptoms. Some mental health providers have warned that these could turn into an onslaught of related issues like substance abuse and suicide, something faculty members at USD’s Hahn School of Nursing and Health Science are taking seriously.

“One of the things that makes nurses so much more vulnerable with these conditions is they tend to be people who want to help other people, at the expense of their own health,” says Katie Lais DNP, PMHNP-BC. “Things like [self] mental health treatment gets dropped off because in the mind of a lot of nurses, there are more pressing issues, like improving other peoples’ lives.”

From June to September 2020, the community-based nonprofit Mental Health America hosted a survey to record the experiences of health care workers during the COVID-19 pandemic. They collected 1,119 responses from health care workers, many of which indicated they were stretched too thin. A whopping 86% reported experiencing anxiety and 76% reported exhaustion and burnout.

A recent study released by a team of researchers at UC San Diego in the Journal of the American Medical Association found nurses die by suicide at a significantly higher rate than the general population. Using nationwide data on violent deaths from 2014, researchers found that suicide rates were nearly 58% higher for female nurses and 41% higher for male nurses.

“One of the main differences with medical professionals is that they are more likely than the general population to overdose or poison themselves,” says Lais. “They have some knowledge about pharmacology and medications, so they have the ability to be more successful in these attempts.”

All these factors have contributed to a mass exodus of nurses leaving patients’ bedside. According to a survey by the UCSF Health Workforce Research Center on Long-Term Care, 26% of California nurses between 55 and 64 are planning to leave the industry in the next two years. The report also forecasts a shortage of more than 40,000 nurses in the state over the next four to five years.

Although California is expected to be shorter than any other state when it comes to the number of registered nurses needed in the coming years, Texas, New Jersey and South Carolina are expected to experience similar issues. 

“We used to call this a lateral arabesque, derived from the dancing term,” says USD Clinical Professor Michael Terry. “Nurses used to drop out after their first years because they trained in ideal conditions. Now, we have a lot of people doing lateral arabesques amid the pandemic.” 

To prevent this, faculty members at the Hahn School are working with students to recognize signs of burnout and practice self-care. One way they are equipping students to care for their mental and emotional health is by writing weekly reflections. What went well? What seemed challenging?

“Reflection helps ground us in the present,” says Lais. “It also gives us a clearer picture of what we’ve overcome to get us where we are now. It gives us hope that things can get better.”

Expanding social-emotional learning for doctoral students will help prepare them for the challenges health care systems face. “It’s no longer enough to just teach them about the curriculum,” says Terry. “We need to take care of their emotional needs as well.”Kelsey Grey ’15 (BA)


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