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Erase stigma: workplace mental health researcher

The University of NSW has appointed Australia’s first dedicated workplace mental health clinical research post. By Flynn Murphy

Australia needs to address the stigma and confidentiality issues surrounding nurses that suffer from mental health problems, said the newly appointed University of NSW workplace mental health researcher, Dr Sam Harvey.

Harvey is an expert in the mental health issues faced by nurses and medical staff, and in a coup for the profession, he has recently been appointed to the first dedicated workplace mental health clinical research post at an Australian university.

Trained in Adelaide, Harvey has returned after a decade in the UK, where he established clinics at two major London hospitals to treat medical staff suffering from mental health problems. A consultation-liaison psychiatrist by training, his previous research posting was at the Institute of Psychiatry in London – Europe’s largest mental health research facility.

The new research post is funded by the NSW Ministry of Health, and based at UNSW’s School of Psychology and the affiliated Black Dog Institute.

Harvey told Nursing Review that when studying the mental health of nurses and other medical staff, he found that the stigma of mental illness, and questions of confidentiality, were the most commonly raised.

He also said it is often the mundane aspects of the job which caused the most stress, magnified by unwillingness on the part of most medical professionals to seek help. “When you ask health professionals what it is that makes them feel stressed, it’s often not the ‘providing healthcare’ aspect of their job, or the nursing, or dealing with sick patients or breaking bad news,” said Harvey.

“I think people generally feel well trained for that. The source is much more the structure they have to work in – whether they feel that they have control over what they are doing in their day-to-day job, control over their own development at work, whether they feel a valued team member. Those are the sort of things you’d find in any profession. And they are what health professionals report they find most troubling.”

Harvey said there was evidence health professionals were at higher risk of mental illness, and that in his research he had encountered nurses that suffered from the “full spectrum of mental health problems”. This included common mental disorders such as anxiety and depression, through to substance abuse involving alcohol and other drugs, and in a small number of cases, more severe problems such as bipolar disorder and psychosis.

He said medical professionals can find it difficult to seek help for a number of reasons. “I think that’s partly because doctors and nurses have some difficulty coming to terms with themselves being a patient, and I think it’s also because of practical concerns about confidentiality if they end up seeing one of their peers for treatment.”

Harvey said the solution was two-fold: health professionals needed to seek help early when experiencing problems, and employers needed to put systems in place to ensure they could do so in confidence.

“We need to break down some of those barriers, to allow people to seek help, and make sure when they do, it can be done in an appropriate and confidential way. While the stigma still exists, people will still be reluctant to come forward because of a fear about what that will mean for their career in nursing.”

Harvey will begin his five-year program of research by concentrating first on mental health issues experienced by ambulance officers, firefighters and police officers in NSW, before hoping to generalise this across the broader workforce.

He said it was important to research nurses because of the potential impact on patient safety and care. “Nursing professionals are a really important group to think about because there is good evidence that if you have nursing staff that are suffering from symptoms of common mental disorders then the level of care that they are able to offer is reduced.”

“If you want to have a population cared for in the best way possible, you need health professionals that are healthy, and well, and are able to access treatment when they need it.”

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