DISCLAIMER: THIS ARTICLE DOES NOT PROVIDE MEDICAL ADVICE
The content in this post is intended for informational or general educational purposes only and it is not intended to be a substitute for professional medical advice, diagnosis, or treatment. Always seek the advice of your physician or other qualified health care provider with any questions you may have regarding a medical condition or treatment and before making any adjustments to your running, nutrition, fitness, or healthcare routines.
A psychiatric nurse discusses coping with anxiety, depression, and the pressure of being a competitive collegiate runner.
Running has been a constant for most of Alexa Yatauro’s life. As a kid growing up in Southern California, she ran 5Ks with her family and used the sport to keep in shape for tennis. Alexa’s passion for distance running blossomed as she got older, and she became a distance runner for the cross-country and track teams for Belmont University in Nashville, Tennessee.
“In college, running became a way to find my identity and gauge my worth. As a walk-on athlete on a highly competitive team, I always felt pressured to prove myself to my coaches and teammates. I relied on my performance to measure how everything else in my life was going. Running during this time became a source of increased anxiety, stress, and depression. It was like a burdensome job, and I found myself losing the healthy joy it initially brought me,” Alexa said.
By her senior year of college, the stress of being a student-athlete and other social factors drove Alexa to suicidal ideation. With the support of incredible coaches, friends, and family, she was encouraged to go to therapy for the first time. It was there that Alexa learned more about mental illness. She began to have more conversations about mental health and decided to specialize in psychiatric nursing care. Alexa also got involved with To Write Love on Her Arms (TWLOHA), an organization that aims to present hope for people struggling with addiction, depression, self-injury, and thoughts of suicide, while also investing in treatment and recovery.
“Taking these steps helped me expand my knowledge on mental health. I understood it better for myself, and was able to talk about it to others with more confidence. Being a part of the university chapter for TWLOHA gave me the chance to connect with others who were struggling like me. I was so inspired and felt so relieved to know I wasn’t the only one battling depression, anxiety, or suicidal thoughts. Having a safe space to openly share experiences and emotions is so powerful,” she said.
Alexa is now attending University of San Diego studying for her doctorate in psychiatric mental health nursing. In the interview below, Alexa chats about why running can be an ideal activity for improving mental health, what it’s like to be a pediatric psychiatric nurse, key indicators of mental health issues to watch for in yourself and others, and more.
Why do you think running can be good for your mental health?
Mental health is such a personal thing. Everyone’s needs are different. Since running can be whatever you want it to be, it connects well to mental health. Running’s versatility is what puts the sport in a special place.
What else goes into good mental health besides running or physical activity?
In my experience, having a good, dedicated support system is crucial for your mental health. Make sure you have people around you that you care for and care for you. Friends, family, peers at work or school — these people are so important to your mental health and well-being. Seek out their support.
Why did you choose the psychiatric nursing field?
I have a strong belief that all nurses have a personal story or experience that ties into their specialty. I learned first-hand in college about the effects of depression and anxiety and how prevalent mental health issues are in society. With medical emergencies, there is typically a straight path to figuring out how to get care: go to your primary care physician or the ER. But with mental health issues, the path to care isn’t always clear and resources can be hard to find. I fought hard battles with depression and anxiety, and I want to make it easier for those who share those struggles. I chose this field because I wanted to advocate for a community that often faces stigma, and because of that they often go untreated or undiagnosed. I want to give those people a voice.
What does your job as a psychiatric nurse entail?
In general, most people know what a nurse does — vitals, IVs, and stuff like that. Right now, I work in the emergency department at a pediatric hospital. I work with kiddos who come in with mental health concerns like depression, suicide attempts, and psychosis. I compare what I do to nurses in the ER who see a patient with a broken bone. They set the break, treat for pain, and monitor, and discharge with resources.
For me, when a patient comes in, and if they couldn't keep themselves safe, or are a danger to others, I assess their needs at the moment. I also assess behaviours, help process emotions and thoughts that will help lead them to a safe place for themselves and others, and ultimately provide resources for recovery. It takes a long time to heal a bone, and it’s the same with your mental health. My goal is for a patient to feel supported even after they leave the hospital.
Sometimes it can be easy to know you have a physical health problem, but mental illness can be more difficult to spot. What are some key things people should be watching out for in terms of poor mental health in themselves or others?
We are so good at hiding ourselves, so it can be tricky to spot mental health issues in yourself or others. Knowing risk factors like existing mental health issues including anxiety, depression, or past suicidal ideation are important. Life factors like relationship issues and sudden life changes are big things to watch for. If you hear about someone feeling hopeless, or they’re isolating and avoiding social settings, those can be key indicators. If you no longer enjoy an activity that used to bring you joy, that can be a sign of mental illness.
Mental health made headlines this summer when gymnast Simone Biles pressed pause on competition for self-care. Other athletes like tennis star Naomi Osaka have used their platforms to discuss the importance of mental health, and many are working to break the stigma around the discussion of mental illness.
According to the World Health Organization, more than 264 million people battle depression. You are not alone. If you or someone you know is suffering from symptoms of depression, there are plenty of ways to get the help you need. TWLOHA offers their FIND HELP Tool that highlights resources for everything from eating disorders to addiction and trauma.