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In the challenging specialty of psych mental health nursing, good self care can be the difference between a long rewarding career and early burn-out. Here are some tips to lighten your load:

Use Your Team

No nurse is an island. Ask for help when you need it, whether that’s on the job or at home.

“Especially with difficult patients, I’m aware and I realize when I have to tap out. Not all of our patients are warm and fuzzy, but they are still hurting and they still need our help” said Angela Best- Boss, a nurse at a large behavioral health facility.

Another nurse suggested a “I’ve Just Had A Hard Shift Protocol” she adopted with her family. “When I’ve had a really really bad day, I turn the cookie jar around on the top of the refrigerator. This lets my spouse and kids know I’m at wits end and they need to wait a bit before they ask or demand anything of me. And sometimes they even bring me tea while I watch mindless television or page through magazines (not nursing journals). Sometimes.”

Celebrate All Victories

“It helps to have to have perspective if you celebrate small stuff,” said Best-Boss. Sometimes this may be as seemingly insignificant as a patient keeping their clothes on for a shift, or being able to verbalize their anger before exploding. Especially in patients with severe mental illness, who may experience ongoing difficulty functioning in the community, small improvements are a big deal.

Give Your Mind A Rest

Just as nurses who work med surg jobs that involve a lot of heavy lifting shouldn’t volunteer to help their friends move on their off days, psych mental health nurses should take an intellectual and emotional break from the specific kind of stress they experience.

If you spend time outside of work with co-workers, it’s easy to slip into nursing talk and exchanging worst day stories can help relieve stress, up to a point. However, if you spend all your time outside of work with nurses and others in high intensity professions, you might find that your mind never totally leaves work. Make a friend who works in a coffeeshop, or as a house painter, or in the arts.

Follow this same rule with your exposure to media. If you work at a substance abuse facility, don’t watch Intervention on your day off.

Leave Your Role At Work

Many people who work as psych mental health nurses are great listeners, but that doesn’t mean you have to listen to everyone’s problems endlessly at church, at the mall, or at your son’s baseball game. When you take off your ID badge, remember you can pick and choose when to problem solve, you can cut some types of conversations short, and not every interaction has to be therapeutic.

The Nurse Who Laughs, Lasts

One nurse described keeping a log of all the unique and funny names they’d been called in their years in psych mental health nursing. Another nurse detailed how her supervisor on an intensive care psych unit brought the staff into the break room after a particularly rough take down and proceeded to tell them knock knock jokes. These tactics help build perspective.

Angela Best-Boss explains it this way: “Having a sense of humor moves this job from tolerable to enjoyable.”


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