By Shanda Whittle MSN, RN, CNL
In 2015, I embarked on an academic journey at the University of San Francisco where I completed my master’s degree in nursing and continued on to pursue my doctor of nursing practice degree. This was something I never envisioned for myself as a new-grad nurse.
I was a quiet child and adolescent prior to nursing school. I survived on intuition and the ability to listen for the sounds of danger, pain, and suffering. They’re skills I continue to hold today as a mental health nurse. I started my career in New York City, caring for its most vulnerable patients. I saw the stigma and discrimination against these patients, and it pained me.
I had a fear of psychiatric patients then.It was a fear that came from growing up in a home filled with mental illness and severe alcoholism.
My father would criticize psychiatrists, or “shrinks” as he called them. At the same time, he often talked of and gave me lessons about how to die by suicide when I was a toddler and adolescent. These quiet moments of “teaching” gave him focus and kept his mind from unraveling further. The last time I hugged my father was in 1993, before we became estranged because of his mental illness.
My mother is homeless, last seen on the streets of New York City. She has severe brain damage from years of alcohol use. She’s lost to those who love her most, yet there’s nothing my sister or I can do to help her. I’ve traveled up and down the east coast, petitioned courts and judges for help, and cried seas of tears for my mother.There is no long-term care for patients with severe mental illness except for state hospitals, which have lengthy waiting lists and dwindling resources and funding.
I clearly remember the last time I hugged her. It was 2016, and I was notified that she had surfaced in South Carolina. I traveled there and petitioned the courts for a mental health evaluation. The police picked her up and brought her to an emergency room for treatment. I was helplessly standing in the emergency room as they escorted her in.
She began verbally attacking me, shouting “how dare you!” over and over again. My childhood fears emerged and tears ran down my face until she was standing directly in front of me. I was afraid she was going to punch me as the police rushed in to intervene. As they got closer, she knew her time was limited. She stopped her accusatory shouting and took me in her arms. It felt like the tightest hug she had ever given me. It may be the last we’ll ever share. Her strong embrace, and her tears that mirrored my own, said all of the words she couldn’t bring herself to say:
“Thank you for caring.”
“I love you.”
“I miss you.”
I work in the emergency room of a level I trauma center providing care to patients who are homeless, those who are gripped by addiction, and those who are experiencing severe mental illness and/or emotional pain. I’ve been attacked verbally and physically, yet I wouldn’t change what I do each day for this population.
While mental illness is not similar to heart disease or cancer, it can similarly alter one’s world. And it is just as deadly if not treated properly and timely.
In my 17 years of nursing, I’ve become an advocate for those who are vulnerable to the discrimination against mental illness. Every once in a while, I overhear someone make a derogatory statement about someone who is homeless or who has severe mental illness and it cuts me like a knife. I bear the scars of this epidemic in our society.
I overcame my own fears to be there for your mother, father, sister or brother when they enter my emergency room seeking help for their deep-seated pain and suffering. I see my mother or father in their eyes and remember the last hug we shared. I promise each of my patients and each of you that I will treat them with the same loving-kindness as I would care for my own parents if I had the chance. This is my promise as a mental health nurse.
Shanda is a registered nurse, Clinical Nurse Leader, Caritas Coach and a Doctor of Nursing Practice student. She is also author of the book “Can’t Find My Way Home: Memoir of a Wounded Healer,” a memoir about her journey growing up among mental and neurological illnesses.
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