illustrative image for mental health awareness month uc irvine school of nursing californiaI recently heard from a colleague about the sad passing of his 103-year-old grandmother – a lady who, when a very young child, lost her own father to the Spanish Flu epidemic of 1918-20.

In sympathizing with him, I was led to consider what extraordinary changes his grandmother had experienced in her wonderfully long life – and think about how unmentionable the grief and despair of her family would have been at the time of her father’s death.

In 103 years, we have come a long way toward prioritizing mental health. Destigmatizing the mention of distress has been a giant first step. But it is truly only the first.

It may seem these days as if mental health is on everyone’s lips – on social media, in celebrity confessionals, around the proverbial water cooler at work – yet when someone experiences a mental health crisis, those people closest to them are frequently bewildered: “We had no idea it had gotten so bad.”

In this month’s issue of our newsletter, you’ll read about the work our nurse leaders and researchers are doing to make those mental health issues visible, and accessible to care, before things “get so bad.”

We look at the trauma that is often concealed beneath and contributes to life events such as homelessness and poverty. We consider new roles for technology in monitoring mental distress and helping to manage the emotional impact of living in pain.

Because mental health awareness means more than destigmatizing the experience of crisis; it means looking after mental health before a crisis is reached. For that to happen, we have to destigmatize the steps of not coping, needing help, admitting we’ve had enough. We have to listen proactively for signs of distress, and – most importantly of all – respond.

103 years on, we’re on the tail of another global pandemic. As we strive to raise awareness of the mental health of our patients, we must also be aware of the mental health of our colleagues.

Nurses, like many health professionals at this time, may feel that they’re not coping, that they need help, that they’ve had enough of the conditions in which they continue to try and provide their care. As we contemplate mental health awareness this month, I leave you with the question: How, as a profession, will we respond to these signs of distress, and alleviate a crisis in the making?