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September 23, 2022

Nursing students training to care for others, now have a program to care for them

3 lines of people in gym Courtesy / School of Nursing at the University of Maine In August, students, faculty and staff with the School of Nursing at the University of Maine practiced a day of mindfulness-based stress reduction exercises, such as guided meditations, mindful movement and walking, eating lunch in silence and refraining from cellphone use.

Increasing resiliency and reducing burnout among University of Maine School of Nursing students, faculty and staff is the focus of WellNurse, a new initiative focus on wellness in nursing education.

“We’ve seen unprecedented levels of stress, anxiety and burnout across the nursing profession related to working and learning in a high-stakes environment, while we continue to manage the additional demands generated from the pandemic,” said 

Kelley Strout, the School of Nursing’s director and the principal investigator on the award. 

WellNurse was made possible by a $1.5 million award from the federal Health Resources and Services Administration, an agency of the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services. The award was made possible by $103 million in American Rescue Plan funding to help health and public safety professionals, particularly those in rural and medically underserved communities, reduce burnout and promote mental health. The funding also supports training efforts that build resilience for health care professionals at the beginning of their careers.

A research and interprofessional program in collaboration with the UMaine School of Food and Agriculture, Clinical Psychology Program and New Balance Student Recreation Center, WellNurse’s goal is to to develop and evaluate a systematic approach to reduce burnout and increase resilience among students in nursing and also to retain faculty and staff.

A resilient nursing workforce can withstand burnout and the demands precipitating current workforce shortages, Strout noted in the award proposal.

“The health care environment is really struggling with mental and physical health as a result of the pandemic,” Strout told Mainebiz.

Strout is collaborating on the project with co-investigators Rebecca Schwartz-Mette, an associate professor of psychology, and Jade McNamara, an assistant professor of human nutrition, along with Joshua Bridges, assistant director of fitness and wellness at the campus fitness center. Liam O’Brien, professor of statistics at Colby College, leads the WellNurse evaluation team.

To teach resilience-building skills, the three-year program is implementing an evidence-based curriculum in mindfulness-based stress reduction, physical fitness, nutrition training and peer mentoring 

The school received notice of the award in January and began rolling out interventions in mid-March. However, engagement was low because it wasn’t yet built into the semester. 

That turned around with the beginning of the new semester this fall.

In early September, for example, a group of students, plus faculty and staff, participated in an intensive weeklong mindfulness program, carried out by certified trainers flown in from the University of San Diego School of Medicine.

“The course teaches strategies to manage stress, such as breathing meditation,” Strout said.

Other lessons included mindful movement and communication techniques that focus on developing an understanding of how thought affects emotion and behavior and how to stop negative cycles. 

The goal isn’t to try to eliminate stress all together, but to develop healthy responses and strategies that can be carried out anywhere and anytime. 

The ideas are new in the health professions. As a demonstration project, WellNurse could become a model for health professional programs throughout the University of Maine System and beyond, Strout said.

Other components include tracking data around physical fitness and learning how to make nutritious meals and develop mindful eating habits. A new wellness room has been carved out of the campus recreation center for guided meditation. Physical exercises such as yoga and step challenges are built into the program. On Oct. 23, there will be a 5K race for students, faculty and staff.

The rec center is running training workshops four days per week for participants, there is weekly massage therapy in the wellness room, and there are workshops that apply evidence-based, interactive techniques for students to reduce anxiety and improve their sleep. Each semester, there will be more data, with programming based on the findings.

“When you’re preparing to save  people’s lines and care for them, you yourself have to be well to do that effectively,” Strout said.

The need is evident. 

“We had a public health crisis,” she said. “The implications are deep and wide and far worse than we’re even recognizing.”

During the pandemic, School of Nursing faculty and students have been deployed to address health care needs in Maine. Students are experiencing anxiety and stress at an all-time high, she said.

“For us to effectively educate them, we have to address that. We can’t look away,” she said.

The same is true for faculty, she continued.

“Most of our faculty works in the clinical setting. They’re burnt out,” she said. “It’s had an impact on how we proceed in the future.”

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