Meet the Experts

Dr. Mary Lashley

Professor, Department of Nursing, Towson University
Dr. Lashley received her PhD from University of Maryland, her MS from University of Maryland and her BSN from Towson University.  She is an American Nurses Association Board Certified Clinical Specialist in Public Health Nursing.  She has over 30 years of expertise teaching nursing students.

Meghan Koury

Patient and Professional Advocate, WVU Medicine
Meghan received her MSW from West Virginia University and her BA from Sweet Briar College. She works at WVU Medicine and has been a patient and professional advocate for 5 years. Meghan assists both patients and professionals with a wide variety of issues which impact patient care.

Introduction

Nursing is a unique program of study. Classes are not confined to lecture halls, and responsibility isn’t solely acing tests. Helping care for others is equally important. There is a large amount of life-saving knowledge that a nursing student will be held responsible for one day.

In addition, nurses are always on the go – and this begins in school as a nursing student. Life during this time will likely be busy and stressful. Maintaining mental health is crucial in staying healthy and happy as a nursing student.

“Nursing school is very difficult and high grades aren’t always achieved for those that have excelled in previous studies.” – Dr. Mary Lashley

This guide will discuss a number of challenges that can be found in nursing school, and strategies for taking them step by step. It will also dive into mental health issues, and offer tips for seeking help.

Challenges For Nursing Students

Nursing students encounter a number of stresses unique to their program of study. From rigorous academic standards to the challenges set forth from the work in nursing school to a demanding personal life; students can very easily begin to feel overwhelmed.

Each challenge faced can be met head-on with a few simple strategies to help ease the stress.

School Work

There is no shortage of information to learn as a nursing student. And many times, this information is something that will later be used to save a life. It is important. Critical thinking is imperative, and while there is a place for memorizing facts, information taught in nursing school is much more than just that. This style of learning may take some getting used to for some students, and success may not come right away.

Tip for Success

Be patient. Try not to get overwhelmed. Stay on top of your coursework. Studying with others in your program can be extremely helpful.

Pro-Tip

When feeling overwhelmed, Dr. Lashley recommends outlining everything that needs to get done and setting priorities.

Responsibility

In clinicals or in the labs that are being performed in nursing school, at some point while taking care of a patient, you will likely be a part of someone’s most difficult moments. For many students that are entering this field of study without any prior knowledge or experience, it can catch them off-guard. It can be mentally overwhelming to think about the giant responsibility that is in front of you. “There is a real fear of harming the patient that one is trying to help.” – Dr. Mary Lashley

Tip for Handling this Huge Sense of Responsibility

Seek out others in the nursing field – clinical instructors, advisors or even personal acquaintances – and talk with them about how you are feeling. They will likely have some words of wisdom that you can draw from when these feelings come on you

Pro-Tip

Don’t forget about yourself. Make sure you do something fun every day that makes YOU happy.

Clinicals and Classes

With classes being held in both lecture facilities as well as in the clinical setting, it can be challenging to keep track of where you need to be and when. Location isn’t the only thing that comes into play. Nurses work around the clock. There will be days, evenings and possibly nights where you will be responsible for attending clinicals or class.

Tip for Keeping Organized

Keep a central calendar updated.

Finances

Nursing school, like many other secondary education programs, is expensive. Financial worry is one of the largest stressors of students. Textbooks, and specifically in nursing, equipment can increase the cost of your program.

Tip for Keeing on Top of Finances

Find a financial advisor on campus that you can talk about what kind of loans you will need to take out and what financial responsibility you will have in school. This will help you realistically budget and stay on top of your finances.

Work-Life Balance

Many students work through nursing school – often as a med tech or even CNA (Certified Nursing Assistant). This can be difficult for some, and for others it is just what they have always done. Regardless, it will be a big adjustment when beginning school.

Taking steps to understand the potential stresses associated with a nursing program and attempting to come up with strategies tailored to fit your own strengths and weaknesses can be one of the keys to success.

The challenges presented above can be even more overwhelming for these students, but there are ways to overcome them. It is important to be prepared and have a strategy going into school so that these do not affect your study or overall life.

Tips for Managing Stress During Nursing School

As one of the most rigorous programs of study on a college campus, nursing studies will undoubtedly be stressful for many students. Every individual will have different ways of coping with the stress.

To be clear, treatment for mental health issues from professionals is imperative. But everyone should take steps to improve overall wellness and decrease stress.

Below are some general activities to incorporate into your daily routine to increase wellness and manage stress:

Exercise – Getting even a small amount of exercise daily can improve mood as well as increase general health and well-being. Join the on-campus fitness center; or take it a step further and try an intramural sport or group fitness class.
Peer groups and organizations – Connect with a group of students on campus that share some of the same classes or clinicals and interests. Combining socialization with an activity that you love is a winning combination.
Maintain a Healthy Diet – Make sure you are getting all the nutrients that you need to sustain your studies, including your fruits and vegetables. Eating on the go is acceptable at times, but try sitting down to a full meal at least once or twice a day. Diet can affect many things including energy levels and memory – both things that you don’t need to decrease during nursing school.
Healthy Sleep Habits – While pulling all-nighters may seem like the norm, it certainly shouldn’t be. An occasional all-nighter is bound to happen, but make sure that the rest of your nights are spent in a restful sleep. Students that have a history of mental health disorders are at an even higher risk of having symptoms if their sleep is disturbed. Aim for 8 hours a night.
Mindfulness – Taking a few minutes away from your busy schedule is important for mental health. Many schools have mindfulness programs where students can take courses that can help them learn relaxation techniques.
Creativity and Artistic Outlets – Is music something that you are interested in? Maybe art? When asked to take an elective, sign up for one that will spark your creativity. Making sure that you are doing something that makes you happy is another key to mental health.
Don’t Focus on the Other Students – Pay attention to your own journey. Everyone is different.

Common Types of Mental Health Issues

Understanding what constitutes a normal level of stress, whether feelings of sadness are in fact depression or when other issues begin to spiral out of control, is important. Mental health disorders that may not have been recognized in the past may present themselves or become more prominent with the added stresses of nursing school.

Awareness begins with recognizing the differences between normal behavior and abnormal behavior. This isn’t always easy and the line between the two is not always clear.

“There appears to be a stigma associated with mental health. An attitude or a sense of looking down upon those with mental health issues. These illnesses should be viewed the same as any other condition (i.e. diabetes, high blood pressure, etc.). Additionally, if you are an individual that feels they may need help, there is no shame in seeking it out. It is important to bear these sentiments in mind for those who are thinking of entering this profession, are currently a provider/professional, or those that may feel that they have a condition they need help with.” – Meghan Koury, WVU Medicine.

Below are some common types of mental health issues and where nursing students can go to get help.

Anxiety

Anxiety is an emotion that is characterized by extreme worry and tension that causes physical changes such as increased heart rate and blood pressure. Anxiety disorders can also be a symptom of panic disorder, obsessive compulsive disorder (OCD) and post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD).

Anxiety disorders are treatable yet only 33% of those that have them seek treatment.

Getting Help: Resources for Nursing Students

Student Health Center – This is a good place to start when feeling like anxiety is getting out of control. Your school may offer on- campus counseling services through campus health. Specifically, counseling can help with adjustment problems, stress management, test anxiety/study skills as well as generalized anxiety.

Local Support Groups – There may be on-campus support groups led by a counselor for students experiencing anxiety.

Mindfulness Programs – Many schools are beginning programs that concentrate on mindfulness. They offer courses or programs for those that would like to learn strategies for dealing with the stresses that we encounter in our lives.

Online resources:Stress Management for Nursing Students – American Holistic Nurses Association7 Ways to Manage Anxiety in Nursing School – Chamberlain College of NursingExpert Tips to Survive Stress in Nursing School – Rasmussen College
Depression

As the most common mental disorder, depression is often seen as sadness, but it is more than that. According to the American Psychological Association, depression can cause a persistent lack of interest and pleasure in daily activities, an inability to concentrate, feelings of worthlessness or guilt as well as physical symptoms such as weight loss or gain and lack of energy.

One out of seven students has depression and in the nursing student population some studies have shown the prevalence to be over 50% of these students. But unfortunately depression is also poorly diagnosed. Symptoms usually begin subtly and often are missed until it has spiraled out of control. BUT, when depression is diagnosed, it is treatable. There is help.

Depression is extremely common among nurses and nursing students and many live in silence because of the stigma associated with it. According to the Anxiety and Depression Association of America, symptoms of depression include: changes in appetite, loss of energy or fatigue, feelings of hopelessness, difficulty concentrating, insomnia and thoughts of death or suicide.

Getting Help: Resources for Nursing Students

Student Health Center – This is a good place to start when you find yourself experiencing symptoms of depression. Your school may offer on- campus counseling services through campus health. Seeing a counselor or psychiatrist can help with depression and the symptoms associated with this mental health issue.

Workshops and Groups – In a group setting, your college or school might offer sessions that provide strategies and peer support when going through depression.

Wellness Zone – Many campuses have an area where students can go to concentrate on their overall mental health wellness. These areas may include quiet rooms, yoga facilities and meditation tools.

Sleep Disorders

Most of us have occasional nights where tossing and turning is the norm and counting sheep doesn’t help. When most people think of the college students, thoughts of overnight study sessions come to mind. But when this becomes an unintentional routine, it can become a problem.

Secondary to the academic rigors of nursing school, many students are at risk for sleep disorders.

Everyone requires a different amount of sleep. Some function well on 6 hours, while others need 8 hours. It isn’t about the number of hours you get, but more about the way you feel after a night’s rest. According to the American Sleep Association, sleep disorders are characterized by “sleep deprivation interfering with work, driving and social activities.” More than 40 million American adults suffer from these problems.

Getting Help: Resources for Nursing Students

Mindfulness Programs/Wellness Centers – These centers may offer relaxation and meditation classes and resources.

Sleep Disorders Lab – If your sleep issues persist, a health care provider may be able to refer you to a sleep disorder program.

Wellness Zone – Many campuses have an area where students can go to concentrate on their overall mental health wellness. These areas may include quiet rooms, yoga facilities and meditation tools.

EXPERT INTERVIEW

with Dr. Mary Lashley

What are some of the stresses students have while in nursing school?

Nursing students have a number of stresses, many are unlike any other program of study. Rigorous academic standards, high expectations, new material, hitting the ground running, and high stakes testing are just a few. A demanding personal life can also be taxing. Most students are used to achieving high grades and academic excellence before nursing school. Nursing school is very difficult, and high grades are not always achieved for students who have excelled in their previous studies. This can be really difficult on those students.

Tell me about a typical day as a nursing student?

A typical day varies from day to day. Some days start early in the morning with clinical or lectures, then the afternoons may be a clinical or simulation lab. There will also be studying, assignments and reading that need to be accomplished. To be successful, I recommend that students get organized and make sure they schedule time for self. Do something fun for yourself for your own mental health.

What was the hardest challenge during nursing school?

Getting my BS in Nursing was the most challenging academic experience of my life. It involved learning the foundational knowledge undergirding nursing practice, and this body of knowledge was all new to me. Everything else is built on this foundation. There was so much content to learn and digest. The information overload created much stress. There is also the stress a nursing student feels when treating a patient for the first time. There is a real fear of potentially harming the patient one is trying to help. First year nursing students go through this feeling of insecurity and it is tough to overcome – but, in the end, it is one of the most rewarding things you will ever do and well worth the struggle.

What is biggest reward for a nursing student?

The biggest reward is seeing the impact on the people that are served. It is incredibly rewarding. It is a great privilege and a great responsibility. Nursing students are able to see all the good they can do when they use their knowledge and skills in service to humanity. They have the power to do good and to make a difference in the lives of others.

What advice would you give a nursing student just starting off?

  1. Take one day at a time.

  2. Get organized – with a planner – lay everything out, what is due, what needs to get done so there aren’t any surprises.

  3. Take care of yourself – this is most important.

  4. Don’t look around at other students. Focus on your own journey. Always strive to move in a forward direction.

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