The end of the year was dreamlike. Not only was I accepted into an accelerated nursing program, the school also selected me as a recipient for a prestigious scholarship award. The honor of being among an elite group chosen to represent the ideal future “face” of nursing leadership was an incredible sensation. But those exciting days quickly spiraled into a nightmare.
Many of us belonging to ethnic and racial groups experience disturbingly disparate health, educational, and economic outcomes, and we have committed ourselves passionately to improving the well-being and quality of life of individuals from populations from which we ourselves are drawn.
My faculty advisor for the scholarship program was so impressed with my curriculum vitae and scholarship application essay that she strongly encouraged me to pursue scheduling a meeting with the director of the Ph.D. program to discuss a seamless progression from a B.S. to an M.S.N. to a Ph.D. One week later, I met with my faculty advisor again to discuss some initial temporary feelings of anxiety I had about the program. I sought to proactively inquire about accessing resources and strategies to succeed in the program, with my diagnosis of depression and anxiety disorder. The next day, in a meeting with my advisor and one of the school’s deans, I was urged to voluntarily withdraw my admission and cancel my acceptance.
The experience was unfathomable; literally within a week, I went from being encouraged to complete all levels of nursing education at the school to being told “this is a very intense program,” “we want you to be well,” “there are other seconddegree programs,” and “when one opportunity closes another opens.” A week after the scholarship orientation and on the fourth day of classes, they concluded that I lacked the emotional fortitude to handle the rigors of the intense, accelerated program. Additionally, when I called several weeks later to honor my end of the scholarship contract with the organization, I was informed that the school had already contacted the organization the day after my withdrawal and requested that the scholarship funds be given to another fi nalist. Along with the frustration inherent in the situation, I was very disappointed with the enduring stigma of mental illness, so pervasive that my health condition superseded the accomplishments that resulted in my selection as a prestigious scholar.
About a month after the experience, I traveled overseas for a service mission trip. An uncanny experience served to maintain my resolute desire to be a nurse, in spite of the indignant and vilifying event.
As the service team of approximately 60 volunteers waited to begin our five-day service mission, the warm community residents greeted us individually. One young girl caught my attention, as she was wearing a bright pink shirt, decorated with the word “princess” (printed in English) and a rhinestone-studded tiara. It reminded me of something I would have worn at her age. Speaking in Spanish, I said, “I really like your shirt.” She tilted her head, her eyes downcast. Her facial expression indicated that she heard me, but she didn’t respond to my compliment. I then proceeded to tell her how pretty it was and called her Princess. Again, I received no response and little eye contact. I finally asked her if she understood me, as I didn’t rule out the possibility that my Spanish was rustier than I realized, but she answered “yes.”
When I walked off I watched the young girl and noticed she was aloof from the other girls and women who were waiting to enter the clinic area. I had two initial thoughts: first, this young girl needs to see a provider and feels shame or embarrassment, or she is extremely shy. Several hours into the afternoon, I saw her again and asked her age. She clearly responded with her head lifted, making eye contact: “16.” Then she became reticent to speak again, and I watched her from a distance and noticed that she remained aloof.
I asked one of the missionaries of a partnering organization about the average age of parity and the familial structure. He said couples are usually partnered anywhere from 12 years to adulthood. I asked our pharmacy manager if we had pregnancy tests. We didn’t.
I saw the Princess again for the third time in the late afternoon but didn’t find an appropriate opportunity to speak with her in an inconspicuous manner. The next day, I spoke with the pediatrician about my assumption, and when I spotted the young lady, I discreetly pointed her out. My hope was that she could be examined and referred to the permanent clinic, about a 30–40 minute walk, to receive the care I believed she needed. A few minutes prior to leaving for my service project worksite, I greeted her with a wave and a smile and it was reciprocated with a partial wave and smile. The next day, I discovered that a teenage girl was seen by one of our providers and that she indeed thought she might be pregnant but was afraid her mother was unaware of her potential pregnancy.
I shared my experience with my student mentor assigned to me at the time of my admission offer to the scholarship program. She expressed her concern about the information I revealed and reasoned that as a black female ostensibly entering a predominately white women’s profession, disclosing my mental health condition might not have been the action of my better judgment. I respectfully, wholeheartedly disagree.
Not only does concealment fuel stigma, but carrying this unnecessary burden hinders one’s ability to achieve a complete and whole state of wellness. Additionally, I candidly shared with her that my father was a physician, trained in the ’70s, who labored under the stigma and shame of his depression for 30 years, unbeknownst to most of his colleagues. Out of fear of losing his medical license and the respect of his colleagues, he concealed his illness and failed to receive the appropriate level of treatment he needed during a crisis episode. As a result, his lifelong battle with depression ended in suicide. His family, friends, colleagues, fellow community members, and former patients were absolutely devastated and angry that he never reached out for adequate help.
My very considerate and compassionate student mentor addressed a relevant and poignant concern, one I also believe has been inadequately examined in society: in a country that professes a desire for diversity, but where racial prejudice still exists and opportunities to render a racial/ ethnic minority as incompetent can be exploited, how does one handle a having a mental illness?
While this question should by no means be ignored, I’ve debated my decision to disclose my mental health history and the physical manifestations that I experienced. My conclusion? I unequivocally have no regrets. One of the main roles of a nurse is to be a patient advocate. I believe that if I can effectively advocate for myself, I’m well qualifi ed to be a uniquely effective advocate for a patient.
Finally, to my father, I’m so very proud of you for dedicating your life, service, and passions to helping others, even as you did your best to address your own struggles and challenges. Thank you for giving me the resiliency and courage to pursue my passions and dreams amidst obstacles and adversity. I love you.
If you are struggling with depression and/or anxiety, we encourage you visit the National Alliance on Mental Illness website at www.nami.org or the National Institute of Mental Health at www.nimh.nih.gov.
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