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As a Nursing Instructor, I See How COVID-19 Affects Students


Working as a psychiatric nursing instructor is not always easy. Mental health has many negative connotations in today's society depending on whom you ask about it. Some people may stereotype individuals with mental health conditions as homeless and crazy, as violent criminals, or as individuals seeking attention or money from the government, and that you can become crazy by taking care of them. [caption id="attachment_105005" align="alignleft" width="300"] Jennifer Strom, RN[/caption] On the first day of class, I always ask my students about their feelings on the upcoming mental health component of their learning, and their responses vary. Some students say they're excited to be taking the class; some say they're anxious about taking the class because of stereotypes about mental health that they've seen in the media. Once during a clinical orientation, while I was showing the seclusion room, one student asked, "Where is the straitjacket?" After my initial shock wore off, I explained that we don't use straitjackets; they're only in movies. Some students said being on a closed unit worries them. Then there are those students who are steadfast in their disdain for mental health nursing, and I realized it's going to take everything in me to portray this nursing specialty --in dire need of nurses -- in a dignified way and plant the seed that it's not as bad as it has been perceived. I prepared myself for these reactions from every new cohort of students by putting on my game face and saying, "Let's do this. We're going to have a great semester."

Now add COVID-19 into the mix. The uncertainty of whether you will have a clinical site for the students to attend, the uncertainty of whether classes will be held face to face or virtually, and the uncertainty of whether you or your students must quarantine due to exposure or testing positive for the virus. This is all too complex for the students to handle along with the daily rigors of nursing school and "normal" stressors.

Tired and Anxious

Every day, I see daily the toll of learning how to be a nurse during an epidemic. The students are tired, not just from studying, but from constantly worrying what will be thrown at them next. Their schedules are subject to change at the drop of a hat, so nursing instructors must have backup plans.

Our students need consistency and a structured environment to be successful in their studies and become nurses. COVID-19 is the enemy of structure and consistency.

Several students have reached out to me to voice their concerns; some even question if they want to continue nursing school. They long to be social and study together as a group to improve their class performance and form the essential bonds expected of college life. They're worried about getting through nursing school, passing the NCLEX, and the environment they'll walk into when they graduate. There is already a significant difference among healthcare facilities' policies and procedures from the last graduating class to this one. They're tired of not knowing. They're having panic attacks and increased anxiety. They're scared, and some are too ashamed to say anything for fear of looking weak.

Self-Care in the Classroom

I've personally started allowing time at the beginning and end of every class for self-reflection and meditation/quiet time. I use deep breathing and visualization therapy to help them cope with the increase in anxiety and panic attacks. This action alone makes a difference in not only their mental health, but the way they see mental health patients.

Assurance is everything in nursing school, especially when it comes from an instructor. And nursing instructors like me are trying our best to provide this assurance, along with a stable, stress-free environment. We're ceaselessly making provisions for our students to ensure they receive the best education and resources for their success.

Life as a nursing student is demanding, and adding the extra stress of nursing school and a pandemic is enough to tip the crate over. I'm scared for them. I'm scared for the nursing profession. I'm scared for our nation. This virus has taken so much from so many -- life, time with family, peace of mind, and the love of being a nurse. Frustration, burnout, and nurses leaving the profession scares and hurts me the most. If nurses are feeling this way now and my students see this -- added to the fears and uncertainty they already have -- how do I, as an instructor, keep them focused on their goal to graduate? We all need to do our part in battling this virus, but we need to be a little more understanding, a little more patient, and a little more comforting for our nursing students. They're going through so much physically, mentally, and emotionally. We're their guides. We're their lifelines at this critical period in their lives. We're their nursing instructors. Are you ready to tell us your story? We're ready to listen!