Coping With Depression and Maintaining Mental Health in Nursing School

Natasha Lynn Albatrosov
Updated March 28, 2024
Explore the contributors to and symptoms of nursing school depression, along with coping resources for nursing students.
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Nursing school can be exciting, both academically and personally. Learning life-saving procedures and patient care techniques allows future nurses to gain the necessary experience to save lives. However, maintaining good mental health in nursing school poses a challenge.

Depression in nursing students emerges from multiple stressors. The demands of nursing programs often take a physical and mental toll. Many students simultaneously maintain households, jobs, families, and social lives. Adding a rigorous academic program plus a pandemic to this equation means an increased risk for depression.

Conversations about nursing school depression are vital. Openness about depression in nursing students normalizes the struggle and helps lift the stigma associated with mental health conditions. Read on to discover valuable information about mental health for nursing students, including:

  • Depression-related data within the nursing student community
  • Common issues impacting nursing students’ mental health
  • Symptoms of depression
  • Coping strategies and mental health resources

State of Mental Health in Nursing Schools

The state of mental health for nursing students has worsened during recent years, especially following the COVID-19 pandemic. Even prior to the pandemic, about half of over 26,000 surveyed college students reported feeling depressed.

Upon COVID-19’s appearance, nursing students from China, Israel, and the U.S. reported increased mental health symptoms, including sleep disturbances, depression, stress, and anxiety.

In Israel alone, over 50% of nursing students reported feelings of anxiety and depression in the third week of lockdown. A 2018 study parallels these findings, reporting that over ⅓ of surveyed nursing students reported feelings of depression.

The prevalence of depression in nursing students has opened the door for increased instances of maladaptive coping mechanisms. A 2022 literature review demonstrated that nursing students have high occurrences of maladaptive coping behaviors, including insomnia, depression, and anxiety.

These findings concluded that maladaptive coping behaviors adversely affect nursing students’ mental health and academic conduct.

Dr. Roseann Colosimo, Ph.D., MSN, RN, a nurse and nursing educator with over 50 years’ experience in mental and physical healthcare, offers insight into nursing school depression.

Dr. Colosimo states, “Nursing students are expected to have a tremendous amount of personal growth to handle complex hospital situations, illness, and complex family dynamics.” The prevalence of depression in nursing students may cause difficulties in fulfilling these expectations.

Common Issues Impacting Nursing Students’ Mental Health

Nursing students may battle depression and poor mental health for many reasons. Per Dr. Colosimo, nursing school produces stressful situations that may contrast with students’ prior academic and employment experiences.

For example, nursing programs consist of demanding courses and practical exercises with actual patients’ health concerns. These situations might easily overwhelm unaccustomed or overloaded individuals, creating the potential for depression in nursing students. The following issues commonly impact mental health for nursing students:

1 Academic Stressors

Nursing school includes required classes such as Anatomy and Physiology and Organic Chemistry, which commonly call for memorization, labs, and hours of study to prepare for exams. The coursework is demanding, and nursing students might experience pressure to succeed or fear of failure.

2 Work/Life Balance

Work/life balance issues frequently impact nursing students, as many maintain a busy schedule between coursework and domestic life. The preoccupation with academics and/or employment, might make students’ self-care lax or nonexistent. Personal relationships and sleep may suffer at the hands of an unbalanced schedule.

3 Workplace Environment

Workplace or clinical setting issues may negatively impact nursing students. For instance, the emotional toll of caring for sick and injured patients might initiate depression in nursing students. Staff shortages may cause a longer and more hectic shift, leading to burnout. Within this situation, should management or colleagues fail to support their fellow nurses, depression may arise.

4 Other Issues

Nurses may face personal difficulties compounded by the stress of nursing school. Childhood trauma may have led to unhealthy coping mechanisms. Health concerns, including COVID-19, may provide a source of worry. Strained relationships may initiate a source of depression in nursing students. Long hours at school or during clinicals might prevent nursing students from seeing their spouse, children, or parents, leading to friction in a relationship.

Symptoms of Depression or Poor Mental Health

Mental health problems can manifest in various ways. Dr. Colosimo notes that nursing students should not attempt to power through these issues. Acknowledging and addressing symptoms promotes positive self-care.

The following warning signs and symptoms are common indicators. Depression in nursing students can show up beyond these examples:

  • minusConfusion or difficulty concentrating
  • minusFatigue or frequent lack of energy
  • minusDisinterest in activities you used to enjoy
  • minusChanges in eating or sleeping habits
  • minusAvoiding friends and family
  • minusOveruse of substances like alcohol or drugs
  • minusInability to carry out daily activities
  • minusExtreme mood fluctuations
  • minusExperiencing physical ailments, like headaches, without an obvious cause
  • minusExcessive feelings of worry, fear, anxiety, or guilt

How to Cope With Depression and Maintain Mental Health in Nursing School

According to Dr. Colosimo, “Nursing programs are very fast-paced, and failing courses only increases the stress, depression, and burnout. Getting help early can help salvage grades and progression in nursing school.”

Seeking help prior to a mental health condition spiraling out of control benefits students both academically and emotionally. Students can use various methods to support their mental health and cope with depression during nursing school.

  1. 1

    Find a Support Network

    Between online and in-person support networks, nursing students have numerous options. Connecting with supportive peers is an especially important step for help with mental health for nursing students.

  2. 2

    Engage in Self-Care Activities

    Dr. Colosimo suggests, “Brief interventions that incorporate breathing and gratitude may be beneficial.” This exercise may involve meditation, or sitting quietly in nature while on a break. Even a 10-minute walk could count towards self-care.

  3. 3

    Engage in Physical Activity or Mindfulness

    If feasible, physical activity provides a healthy outlet to combat depression. Simple movements, such as walking, offer a break from daily stressors. Dr. Colosimo adds, “Visual triggers such as pedometers may be helpful to increase activity.” Mindfulness meditation, an alternative to physical exercise, offers similar mental benefits, like improving the immune system and relieving depression.

  4. 4

    Lean on Your Religious or Spiritual Beliefs

    Joining a church or spiritual community might provide a support network. Reflecting, journaling, or praying about stressful situations may uncover new insights and comfort.

  5. 5

    Seek a Mental Health Counselor

    The guidance of a licensed professional provides an unbiased support system. Via a school or Employee Assistance Program, nursing students may access counseling services to cope with depression.

Professional and Peer-Run Mental Health Resources

Mental health resources via telephone, internet, or apps provide a valuable support option for nursing students. The following organizations feature accessible resources that promote mental health for nursing students:

  • Hotlines

    In July 2022, the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline debuted a quick-dial code. Dial 9-8-8 for mental health crisis assistance. The previous hotline number still works.
  • Warmlines

    These help lines are an alternative to crisis hotlines. Warmline callers might be in an active mental health crisis, or might simply seek a listener. Warmlines provide a supportive, active listener for emotionally tough times.
  • Depression and Bipolar Support Alliance

    This alliance offers online and in-person groups for people with depression or other mental health conditions. A search function allows you to locate in-person depression support groups based on the distance from their home ZIP code. Online support groups are also available.
  • Well-Being Initiative

    This initiative provides a host of free wellness resources. The Happy App warmline is a free, 24/7 helpline nurses can call following a difficult or stressful day. Supportive podcasts are also available.

    This website provides government-related mental health resources. It offers six categories of educational resources, each geared toward a specific population.

Frequently Asked Questions About Mental Health for Nursing Students

question-mark-circleHow many nursing students are depressed?

Over one-third of surveyed nursing students reported feelings of depression, per a 2018 study. This number increased at the beginning of the COVID-19 pandemic, with more than half the surveyed Israeli nursing students reporting feelings of anxiety and depression.

question-mark-circleIs it normal for nursing school to make you depressed?

It is normal for nursing school to cause depression issues. You are not alone. Nursing school poses a physically and mentally challenging environment. There are many resources to help manage depression in nursing students.

question-mark-circleHow do you mentally survive nursing school?

Students can mentally survive nursing school by maintaining a support system of family and friends who are aware of their stressful situation and remain encouraging. Nursing students can also use professional and peer-run resources geared toward mental health conditions.

question-mark-circleAre nurses more prone to depression?

Nurses may be more prone to depression due to the emotional toll of caring for sick and injured patients. Staff shortages, long shifts, burnout, and feeling unappreciated by fellow staff may also contribute to depression in nursing students. Depression in nurses might be a sign of Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD).

Last Reviewed by: July 19, 2022

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