May is here again, and that means—in honor of mental health month—we are discussing winter mental health. Much like the preceding holidays, the winter months (December–February) usually see an increase in reported mental illness. Triage nurses can help those who are struggling through the gloomy months to find hope that the worst will pass.
Winter Mental Health Challenges
The dark and wet months of the year serve as a breeding ground for mental health challenges, including seasonal affective disorder, depression, and suicidal thoughts. When patients call in with such concerns, triage nurses should be able to tell the difference between similar symptoms in order to best help the patients find relief.
Seasonal Affective Disorder
Seasonal Affective Disorder (pithily nicknamed SAD) is a condition in which depression symptoms are triggered by the changing of the seasons. It can still affect people when the sun shines, but it is most common during the cold and gloomy months.
Seasonal affective disorder is characterized by those affected feeling listless, having little energy, experiencing increased appetite or gaining weight, and oversleeping. More severe symptoms include feelings of hopelessness and worthlessness, difficulty focusing, and even thoughts of suicide. The abnormally long winter this year especially has affected millions with seasonal affective disorder.
In the best cases, the reemergence of the sun is enough to chase this winter mental health challenge away. Triage nurses may recommend being active and a prescription of sunlight or UV exposure for 10 minutes in the morning and 10 minutes later in the day. In more severe cases, however, nurses should refer patients to an appropriate mental health professional.
Determining how to treat seasonal affective disorder comes down to listening to a patient’s concerns, symptoms, environment, and medical history. Ask the right questions in order to guide the individual to the correct level of care.
Depression (clinically referred to as major depressive disorder or clinical depression) is more than just “feeling down.” It is a serious mental affliction that alters mood and perception of the world. Depression is quite common. According to the National Institute of Mental Health, approximately 7.8% of US adults 18 and above experienced at least one major depressive episode in 2019 alone.
Depression can be exacerbated by external circumstances, including dismal weather, making depression a true winter mental health threat. Another significant contributor was the prolonged COVID-19 pandemic, which tripled the incidence rate for depressive episodes and resulted in a lingering global “pandemic fatigue.”
Depression is psychological and emotional as well as neurological. Triage nurses should be prepared to act as emotional counselors when dealing with callers experiencing depression. Proper training can prepare nurses to be helpful while remaining emotionally stable themselves as they obtain the information they need. Mental health professionals are a good resource for patients with depression.
Suicide is the intentional taking of one’s own life. If the actions taken to this end are unsuccessful, they are referred to as a suicide attempt. Suicide is a leading cause of death, especially in older teens and young adults.
Causatives for suicide are not limited to winter mental health challenges. They include all kinds of trauma, addiction, and drug abuse in addition to environmental and situational factors. However, some mental health conditions can also bring suicidal thoughts to the fore and make alternatives seem insufficient.
The good news is that suicide rates have reportedly dropped over the last few years after a steady increase in the preceding 20 years. When callers contact triage services with suicidal thoughts or intentions, nurses should help them feel heard and establish connections with them so they do not feel alone. These are usually the most effective means of de-escalating the situation.
Triage nurses listen and respond without judgment, offering a sympathetic ear and acting as a positive force for callers. Nurse help callers find other means of support, responding to the call for help. They should also contact the local police to perform a safety check on the patient.
Keys to Triage for Winter Mental Health Calls
Though it may feel overwhelming, higher triage call volume during the winter months is actually a good thing, indicating that people are reaching out for help. Nurses should respond to such calls by listening carefully and attentively and helping callers feel heard.
In mild cases, nurses can offer simple solutions like exercise and limited alcohol consumption that are geared toward improving mood, boosting energy levels, and sharpening mental focus. In more severe cases, triage nurses can direct patients to those facilities and professionals that can help them find relief.
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