Noah Nordheimer, CEO of APN, discusses mental health stigma

Noah Nordheimer, CEO of APN, explores the mental health and substance abuse issues in the healthcare sector and the impact of stigma

Hi Noah! First of all, how do you define mental health?

“Mental health is health – it’s the intersection of mind, body, and soul. When we talk about health, that includes mental health. It’s not separate. Mental health impacts physical health and vice versa. It should all be under that same umbrella of health.”

“By stigmatising mental healthcare, we’re preventing people from being truly healthy,” Noah Nordheimer, CEO of APN.

Is there stigma in the healthcare industry regarding mental health?

“Mental health has long been surrounded by stigma in many cultures and industries, and healthcare is not even close to an exception. In APN’s recent study, we see the anecdotes of mental health stigma in healthcare turn into data. 

“Mental health stigma exists even within the healthcare industry. It’s particularly prevalent among male healthcare workers. Men in healthcare are much less likely than their female counterparts to seek help for psychological issues due to fear of losing their licence or judgement from others, lack of time, and lack of resources and support. The fear of career impact and colleague judgement jumps out when we talk about stigma. Fear and shame around mental health impacts healthcare workers at an alarming rate, leaving them to suffer in silence and self-medicate with substances. We’ve come a long way in fighting the stigma associated with mental health, but we still have so far to go.”

Tell us about the impact of substance abuse on healthcare professionals?

“The healthcare industry has always been challenging; healthcare workers often forgo adequate sleep, proper nutrition, and opportunities to recharge to meet the demands of the industry. They see patients in their most vulnerable, painful moments and have to employ a significant amount of compartmentalising to survive the industry. 

“Unfortunately, COVID-19 has taken the slow-burning struggles of healthcare careers and doused them with gasoline. Healthcare professionals have experienced so much trauma in recent years from the front lines of the pandemic. With that trauma can come overwhelm, despair, existential crisis, and burnout. Without extensive support (personal, professional, and even habitual), we find that people grasp for coping mechanisms to ease the pain. Unfortunately, but also commonly, that means substance use to alleviate painful feelings of burnout and stress. According to our recent report, 14% of healthcare workers have admitted to either consuming alcohol or controlled substances while in the workplace, and more than 1 in 5 (21%) say they consume alcohol or controlled substances multiple times per day. As much as substance misuse is impactful on the people, it also should raise alarms for us. Healthcare workers are struggling, burning out, and reaching for ways to feel better. That should signal an urgency to eliminate the stigma of mental health, support these professionals as they navigate their humanness, and provide real, practical, proactive care to help our frontline workers process, rest, and heal.”

Why must mental health be put on par with physical health? 

“There are huge discrepancies between how we talk about, treat, and cover mental health issues versus physical health issues. The truth is that one cannot exist without the other. Everyone should have a right to physical healthcare and mental healthcare, equally. We have to advocate for access to both and stop treating them as separate issues if we want to have a healthy, thriving society. Just ask a person who is physically healthy but mentally struggling. They do not feel “healthy.” That state does not feel “good enough”. For a person to live well, relate well, work well, and even stay physically well, mental health has got to be at the front of their mind too.

“By stigmatising mental healthcare, we’re preventing people from being truly healthy – physical and mental health go hand in hand. The only way to be truly healthy is to take care of both mind and body – the whole person.”

Why should healthcare professionals ask for help?

“Healthcare professionals are allowed to be humans too. Though they certainly have been heroic over the past few years in particular, that doesn’t mean they don’t need care too. Healthcare workers have sacrificed so much in the last few years. They have worked so hard to keep us safe, informed, and healthy, and the fact that they might not feel they deserve to ask for help should grieve us. It is our duty as a society to recognise this crisis for what it is and come up with solutions that make healthcare workers feel heard, understood, and protected. 

“Just as we encourage patients to seek treatment for a physical ailment, we need to encourage healthcare professionals to prioritise their own health and not penalise them for taking the time they need to heal. 49% of U.S. healthcare workers say they are either at their breaking point or looking for new work due to the stress and trauma they endure on the job, so we need to intervene and provide the resources and compassion required for their recovery. We have the treatment protocols to address this issue. We just need to give healthcare workers the space and support to get help.

“There is no shame in struggling with mental health – only shame in not supporting those who are. If we show up for healthcare professionals and support them as they prioritise their well-being, we can help tear down stigma in the process.”

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