It takes courage to seek help: Director of Australia’s new nurse and midwife health service

“There’s a myth that nurses and midwives somehow have to be some extraordinary kind of human being who don’t go through the range of experiences that we all do as human beings.”

“That myth has not assisted the nursing and midwifery professions to recognise their own need for care and to take the time out to manage that,” says Heather Pickard, Director of the new National Nurse and Midwife Health Service which is set to launch early 2024.

Aimed to address increasing rates of fatigue, stress and burnout which have escalated since the start of the pandemic, the Australian Government has invested $25.2 million over five years to establish and deliver the National Nurse and Midwife Health Service (NNMHS).

The service is aimed to help Australia’s nurses and midwives, including students, to better manage their health and wellbeing with counselling and case management services.

The NNMHS will provide free and confidential support, led by nurses and midwives, for nurses, midwives, and students with information, advice, treatment and specialist referrals. This includes providing a compassionate response to sensitive health issues, such as mental health and alcohol and other drugs.

“Sometimes when we’re at a very low period in our lives, particularly around something like problematic substance use which is so loaded with shame and stigma, we are unable to see hope for ourselves,” says Ms Pickard.

“We need to practice with safety. We have to keep nursing as a safe profession, looking after the public health, but we need to have a compassionate sensitive response to the types of issues that nurses can face.”

The NNMHS will be complementary to existing services in the space including Nurse & Midwife Support, the 24-hour telephone support line and the Nurse and Midwife Health Program Victoria (NMHPV).

The NMHPV was established in 2006 as a free, confidential and independent service to Victorian nurses and midwives. Ms Pickard was instrumental as its founding CEO in 2006, and Board Director for six years, three of those as Board Chair.

“We very quickly saw people coming through the doors. Working as a nurse supporting nurses with their ideas around what kind of support would be helpful was incredibly rewarding.”

Heather Pickard, Director of the new National Nurse and Midwife Health Service

Ms Pickard herself openly identifies as a nurse in recovery of 29 years and shares her story of recovery and transition back into the nursing sector as an example of what can and is possible.

“I wasn’t functioning in the way that I usually did. Even though I was never substance affected in work, problems with substance use affects every area of our lives, and its other people that see it before we acknowledge it.

“My early intervention meant there’d been no harm in the workplace because somebody had the courage to call it and make it possible for me to be employed, but not at work. It was done in such a caring way.

“Once I’d started to get my wellness back, I realised that I needed to put some more time into my recovery. I felt to do that, I needed to be out of the nursing profession.”

Ms Pickard had a hiatus from active nursing before returning to nursing in the alcohol and other drug sector. As manager of the drug and alcohol programs at Monash Health she was part of the establishment of the first addiction medicine. It was there she noticed that some of the clients were nurses experiencing problems related to drug and alcohol use.

“I felt then that what was needed was a sensitive, compassionate program that could respond to nurses who found themselves in that kind of dilemma, and I personally understood what that kind of dilemma felt like.”

Ms Pickard left Monash Health to work in partnership with the ANMF Victorian Branch and the then CEO of the Nurses’ Board of Victoria, to establish the Victorian Nurses’ Health Program as CEO. She studied higher level governance at the Australian Institute of Company Directors which led to her taking the reins as CEO of the Self Help Addiction Resource Centre (SHARC) where she spent 11 years.

“We all have things that we do in our life to make sure that we have balance. I’ve learned how to look after my own work/life balance and I know what a good, healthy status quo is for me. I think it’s something we all need to do. I would encourage nurses to check in with themselves that they’ve got the balance right.

“Sometimes we’re so busy doing that we’re not actually looking after ourselves. It’s not always drug and alcohol. Often it’s stress, often it’s anxiety in or around the workplace.”

Reaching out

“I encourage nurses who find themselves thinking… “Have I got a problem? Am I concerned that there might be a problem at work?” to reach out to the various support services available to them,” says Ms Pickard.

Many nurses and midwives can get the help they need and come back into the profession that they love in a healthy and safe way, she says.

“I’ve seen many nurses identify sensitive issues in their life and reach out for support which enables them to come back to work as practitioners with possibly a deeper level of compassion in the workplace.”

“I firmly believe from my own journey and my own recovery that often the spiral downwards can involve multiple factors at play. We need to set aside any moral judgement and reach out to other nurses who understand what you’re going through, because help really is available.”

Nurse & Midwife Support or call 1800 667 877

Nurse and Midwifery Health Program Victoria or call (03) 9415 7551

Listen to the full podcast of Heather Pickard’s story in the NMHPV Podcast Episode 1 – Mark Aitken talks to Heather Pickard, a registered nurse and Chair of the NMHPV Board, who provides her personal story of a nurse in recovery.

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