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Julia Gillard shines a spotlight on nurses’ and midwives’ mental health at Annual Professional Conference

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Tears were shed at this year’s Australian Nursing and Midwifery Federation (SA Branch) Annual Professional Conference as Australia’s 27th Prime Minister delivered a powerful address on a topic close to us all.

Speaking in her capacity as Chair of mental health advocacy organisation beyondblue, Ms Julia Gillard AC shared some fond childhood memories of her father’s nursing work as well as the harsh realities of today’s mental health issues, particularly among nurses, midwives and other health professionals.

“As professional nurses or midwives, you’ve dedicated your lives to supporting others. It’s rewarding work. You do it because you love it, you do it because you care. We all need to accept, however, that this is physically, intellectually and emotionally demanding work,” Ms Gillard said.

“Compared to the general population, nurses experience higher rates of stress-related health conditions, including psychological issues.”

In the wider community, eight Australians die by suicide every day with around 200 people attempting to kill themselves every day.

“Suicide rates for female health professionals, including nurses, are higher than for women in other occupations. Suicide rates for male nurses and midwives were significantly higher than for men working outside the health professions.”

She said nursing can take a personal toll, referencing burnout, compassion fatigue, secondary trauma and vicarious trauma. She stressed that, as nurses and midwives, self-care should be practiced as an essential, not optional, part of everyday life.

She highlighted the importance of healthcare professionals being able to recognise mental health ‘red flags’ and employing certain strategies and support systems to maintain their mental health.

“At beyondblue we often remind people that they can’t look after someone else unless they’re looking after themselves,” said Ms Gillard.

Ms Gillard drew upon the findings of a 2012 study conducted by the Nursing Research Unit at King’s College in London to explain that if nursing staff had a positive, supportive working environment, patients were more positive about the care they received: “When nurses feel good, patients feel better.”

Risk factors for adverse mental health conditions include:
Shift work and disrupted sleeping patterns
Occupational violence or aggression from the public
Repeated exposure to death and trauma
Conflict between work obligations and family obligations
High levels of responsibility•
High expectations from the community
Greater access to lethal means in the case of suicide risk
Fear of making mistakes

“Despite these clear risks, few Australian health services have adopted sustainable workplace mental health and wellbeing strategies—we want to change that.”

She says the task of improving mental health of healthcare professionals is twofold.
Firstly, individuals must be supported in their understanding and maintenance of their own mental health. Strategies such as eating regular meals, developing interests beyond work, identifying triggers of stress and trying relaxation methods can all lead to improving mental health.

Secondly, institutions of health and care must strive to emulate good mental health practice by encouraging conversation around the topic of mental health and activating resources that provide employees with help when they need it.

She explained how her father’s work as a psychiatric nurse in Adelaide’s Z Ward had allowed her to see how far Australia has come in its approach to the stigma and discrimination that surrounds mental health discussions. Both our understanding of mental health and access to a growing number of relevant resources, she said, have improved since the days of the Z Ward.

“In Australia, it’s true that we’ve come a long way in putting people first when deciding matters involving their own care,” said Ms Gillard. “People are more prepared to discuss and act on their own mental health than ever before.”

Ms Gillard encourages nurses, midwives and personal care workers to pursue supportive mental health practices in the workplace by challenging their supervisors and leaders to employ mental health help strategies and having open discussions with their colleagues about mental health to help reduce the stigma that surrounds it.

“People that get help, get better.”

View Ms Gillard’s presentation in its entirety here.

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