After a semester of clinical experience and weeks of researching mental health issues, Tennessee Tech University nursing students realized that patients with drug addictions, depression and behavior disorders are average people just like them.
Assistant nursing professor Susan Reeves challenged upper-division nursing students to do more than recite statistics about mental illness, but to instead research a disorder they wanted to understand in a personal way.
“Nurses have to grasp the concepts of mental illness,” Reeves said. “A thorough understanding of patient issues requires more than memorization of hard science facts.
“No one in the hospital is stress free, and as a nurse, at some point you will serve people who are not lucid, whether from medications, mental illness, depression, anxiety or stress.”
Katie Delk, of Waynesboro, Abbie Pierce, of Cookeville, and Bethany Ward, of Brentwood, examined a combination of such factors by studying the over-prescription of benzodiazepines for Generalized Anxiety Disorder, and the resulting addictions.
“It was something relevant we had seen a lot of in clinicals,” said Pierce. “Patients didn’t know the drugs were addictive, or that something else could have been prescribed.”
The drugs, known on the street as bars, benzos, downers and footballs, among other names, have been prescribed for occasional anxiety since the ‘70s. Brand names include Xanax, Valium, Ativan and Klonopin.
The drugs work quickly, like during travel if a person fears riding in an airplane, but after repeated use for general anxiety, the dosage has to increase to get the same calming effect.
Delk found that more than 30 percent of patients had been prescribed the drugs for longer than three months. Only recently have doctors learned to not prescribe the medication long-term and to treat temporary anxiety differently.
“Some people had been prescribed the drugs for years,” Delk said. “We even talked to nurses who didn’t realize they were dependent on the medications. It changed a lot of our perspectives. I realized that me, I could have been prescribed this.
“The project was much more personal because we saw the issue first hand in clinicals and talked to people who had the dependence,” said Delk.
Working in groups, using research from academic journals and finding ample sources was hard, the students said.
“It was nice to see the progression of research over the last five years. There were more perspectives and more resources,” said Delk.
In addition to the writing and research involved, the student groups had to present their findings to faculty at the end of the term.
Some students chose topics based on a personal connection, others selected issues prevalent among college students, including test anxiety, insomnia and depression.
“This gives them an opportunity to dig into something interesting to them,” said Reeves. “It’s fun to see them get excited about what they learn. We don’t get to see that passion in a multiple choice test.”
Understanding mental health issues and learning to communicate are keys to caring for patients, Reeves said.
“Your biggest tool is yourself,” said Reeves. “In mental health, you have to be able to communicate.”
That might mean writing a patient evaluation or talking with patients to get to know them. Using a patient’s nickname may be the personal touch needed to put the patient at ease.
“Don’t avoid that person,” Reeves tells her students. “Go out of your way to ensure they receive professional care.”
It’s a lesson the students take to heart.
“I had never dealt with that, and it changed my perspective,” said Pierce. “There’s a stigma of mental health patients, how they are and how they act, but they are just like us.”
“If I had grown up in a different environment or had a different set of circumstances, I could be like that.”