As a counsellor at Victoria’s unique mental health service for nurses and midwives, registered nurse Carolyn McDonald helps colleagues across the professions confront and navigate issues including stress and anxiety, depression, substance use and vicarious trauma.
The far-reaching impact the service can make often hits home. Just this week, for example, a former client walked up to her at a local shopping centre just to say ‘I’m okay’.
She then turned to Carolyn’s husband and said – “This woman saved my life”.
Moments like these make the job incredibly rewarding and worthwhile, says Carolyn.
“In her case, it was just her being able to speak to me each week, just keeping her ok. She wouldn’t have got that from another service. It was just like a little safety net, until she didn’t need it.”
Established in 2006, the NMHPV is a free, independent and confidential nurse-led service for Victorian nurses, midwives and students who experience sensitive health issues related to mental health, substance use, family violence, or anything affecting their health and wellbeing. The stigma-free entry point offers tailored support and counselling, as well as specialist referrals.
Now, the successful program is set to launch across the country, with the Albanese Government investing $25.2 million to establish and run a Nurses and Midwives National Health Program, as a result of years of lobbying by the ANMF for a national nurse and midwife service.
Making the announcement yesterday, Assistant Minister for Health and Aged Care, Ged Kearney, said the new service would help nurses, midwives and students better manage their health and wellbeing with counselling and support services to tackle increasing rates of fatigue, stress and burnout, which have escalated since the COVID-19 pandemic.
The national service will replicate the successful Victorian model and aim to keep more nurses and midwives healthy, supported, and retained in the workforce. Work will commence shortly on the rollout framework, with the service set to operate across four central hub locations including Victoria-Tasmania, New South Wales-ACT, South Australia-Western Australia, and Queensland-Northern Territory.
A former Federal Secretary of the ANMF, Ms Kearney said the service, designed and run by nurses, will give nurses and midwives the opportunity to talk about their mental health concerns with “peers who just get it”.
“Our nurses and midwives contribute so much to our communities and it’s imperative that we support them to manage their health in a way that works for them. Expanding the program nationally is about providing that support in a welcoming, accessible way,” Ms Kearney said.
“We want to make sure that our nurses can stay working in the system that cares for them as much as they care for us.”
According to inaugural CEO Heather Pickard, the NMHPV we see today grew from conversations regarding the extent of sensitive health issues, such as mental health and substance use, experienced by nurses.
Unsurprisingly, initial investigation found nurses were not immune to many of the same challenges faced by the general community. The stark difference, however, was their resistance to seek help.
“What we saw with nurses was this resistance to actually go and get help because of stigma and fears over registration,” Ms Pickard recalls.
“Being a helping community, and being used to being in a helper role, it’s hard for nurses to reverse that [mentality].”
The NMHPV finally got off the ground in 2006 thanks to the Nurses Board of Victoria and funding from nurses’ and midwives’ state registration fees. Its point of difference from most employee assistant programs was the fact it was designed and run by nurses, enabling unparalleled connection, and provided unlimited sessions.
In the beginning, Ms Pickard and a part-time clinician were the only staff. These days, the service has eight expert clinicians on deck.
Registered nurse Glenn Taylor, CEO since 2008, has seen the program evolve from the ground up. He said he felt grateful for the opportunity to expand the program nationally so that all nurses and midwives can access the same level of support.
“The program is very unique in that we provide a safe place for any nurse or midwife, or student, to come and speak to one of their own who has experience working in the profession, and quite often has a lived experience with issues like stress and anxiety,” Mr Taylor explained.
“We can help them navigate a path through the challenge they’re experiencing in a safe way and really challenge the fear and stigmas associated with being a nurse who isn’t quite right, or is struggling for a period of time.”
While many nurses and midwives have adjusted to the new COVID normal, Mr Taylor said the service was bracing for a potential increase in presentations just around the corner.
“The fact that so many of our colleagues out there have been able to push through, despite the way they’re feeling and other concerns in their lives, is a testament to their resilience, but it’s not sustainable,” he said.
“What we’re seeing more of is deep-seated, more complex presentations, from nurses and midwives who have really struggled to hold it together for some time, and the outcomes we’re seeing are probably more significant than before. It’s closely tied, we think, to all the various components around COVID.”
Over the coming months, the ANMF (Federal Office) will work with key stakeholders to establish the implementation plan for the new Nurses and Midwives National Health Program. When fully up and running, the service will employ RNs, ENs, nurse practitioners and midwives to offer free, independent advice, support, information, treatment, and specialist referrals.
ANMF Federal Assistant Secretary Lori-Anne Sharp welcomed the federal government’s commitment for a national program to care for the health and wellbeing of nurses and midwives.
“Nurses and midwives have carried us through the pandemic and they’re continuing to support the community in the ongoing response,” Ms Sharp said.
“This service will be vital in offering support across the professions and it’s fantastic that we have an established framework and the experience and solid success of the NMHPV to guide us along.”
When the NMHPV first opened its doors, many nurses and midwives were reluctant to seek help for sensitive health issues. Over nearly two decades, through a focus on reducing stigma and promoting vulnerability, more and more are getting the support they need.
As the program goes national, Mr Taylor encouraged nurses, midwives and students across the country to find out more and one day soon access a free, independent and confidential service that could save their life.
“Don’t be concerned about asking for help,” he stressed.
“Nurses and midwives are like everyone else on the planet, susceptible to anxiety, stress, sensitive health conditions, and problems with alcohol and drug use. Don’t hesitate to reach out, no matter how big or small the problem is.”
Victorian nurses, midwives, and students can access the Nursing and Midwifery Health Program Victoria (NMHPV) by calling (03) 9415 7551 or visiting www.nmhp.org.au for more information.