Preventive mental health care has always been important to Elaine Walsh ’86 BSN. For instance, while pursuing her PhD in nursing at the University of Washington, she loved her job as a research assistant, working with high school students who were at risk for suicide. “These were young people whom we felt we were able to help sooner, rather than when they got into the hospital and were really struggling,” she says.
Walsh launched her nursing career with a degree at Mount Saint Mary’s because of the Mount’s top-ranked program and because she liked Los Angeles. “I was happy being on that beautiful campus, and they had what turned out to be an incredible women’s leadership program,” she says.
Since then, Walsh’s path has led to a role as associate professor in the University of Washington’s Department of Child, Family and Population Health Nursing. She also brings her interest in mental health and prevention to her assignment as a nurse scientist at Seattle Children’s Hospital, where she studies resilience in nursing.
“I look into the resources and that feel supportive to nurses, and what leadership teams and supervisors can do to help,” Walsh says. “I’m also looking at what factors are stressors for nurses, what gets in the way of resilience and what makes them feel burned out.”
During the coronavirus pandemic, of course, stressors abound, even in a children’s hospital that doesn’t see nearly as many COVID cases compared to other institutions. In ordinary times, no matter how much stress the job creates, a nurse can leave at least some of it behind when the shift ends. That’s not so today. “People are concerned they’re going to infect family members,” Walsh says. “Then, even when you go to the store on your day off, you have to think about safety.”
One of Walsh’s most intriguing findings, she says, is how important it is to coach nursing supervisors on how to support nurses who feel upset, disrespected, broken-hearted or simply exhausted. Hospitals have wonderful specialist teams who assist in extreme situations, she explains. “But we’re trying to help people on the ground to have those skills, to help with stressors when they occur.” That can keep smaller problems from becoming big ones.
Among other things, the research highlights the importance of self-care in nursing. “We’ve realized that caring for yourself is caring for your patients,” Walsh says.
That’s a hard lesson for professionals who often pride themselves on showing up for work even when they’re sick. Sometimes nurses simply have to put themselves first, and supervisors need to model that behavior, Walsh says. “Leaders who take good care of themselves are actually taking good care of their staff.” Looks like she’s putting those leadership skills to good use.