Comment: Nurses’ work can lead to PTSD; provide care they need

Legislation would add PTSD as an occupational condition for nurses and allow coverage under L&I.

By Autumn Dennistoun / For The Herald

Earlier this year, Buffalo Bills football player Damar Hamlin suffered a cardiac arrest and was resuscitated in front of a worldwide audience.

It was shocking for some individuals to witness this event, as many of them have never witnessed something of this nature. This raises the question of what do you do when this is your everyday reality. An upcoming bill in the Washington state Legislature proposes that post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) be classified as an occupational condition for registered nurses who have experienced traumatic events on the job, thus enabling them to receive coverage through the state Department of Labor & Industries.

PTSD and other mental health conditions are leading causes of nurses leaving the profession altogether. A key to solving the staffing shortage will be preventing more turnover of nurses in today’s increasingly complex health care system.

Throughout our careers, nurses encounter a variety of emotional and mental hardships while caring for patients during their most difficult moments. Numerous studies have examined the rate at which nurses are diagnosed with or exhibit symptoms of PTSD.

Since the covid-19 outbreak, the number of nurses with PTSD has increased. My work as a labor and delivery nurse exposed me to traumatic stress after I witnessed the death of a newborn in his father’s arms. In my role as a nurse, I was responsible for carrying the infant through the hospital to the morgue under a blanket so that no one would know.

There was nothing in nursing school that prepared me for such an event. In the following delivery I attended, I panicked and was sent home because I believed the baby would also die. It can also be stressful to resuscitate newborns, stabilize patients with hemorrhages, or deliver premature babies. Providing care to those in their greatest need can be a tremendous honor; however, repeated exposure to death and human suffering can cause significant mental strain and anguish on medical professionals.

State House Bill 1593 and Senate Bill 5454 propose amending industrial insurance coverage for PTSD among direct care nurses and classifying it as an occupational disease. Public hearings on these bills have been held, but both bills will be up for committee votes on Feb. 13 for the Senate bill and Feb. 15 for the House bill.

More emphasis on mental health resources for health care professionals must be considered because of the increasingly challenging tasks we are asked to provide under more significant stress with fewer resources. Further attention from medical institutions on allowing nurses to debrief after stressful situations, along with increased medical leave and insurance benefits for counseling and other healing modalities is needed to take care of those who care for others. I urge state lawmakers to vote in favor of House Bill 1593 and Senate Bill 5454 to better protect the mental health of nurses in our communities when the time comes.

Autumn Dennistoun is a graduate student at the University of Washington School of Nuring in its doctor of nursing program in population health and systems leadership. Formerly of Arlington, she lives in Mount Vernon.

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