By Ravi K. Raheja, MD
Much like the holidays that precede them, the winter months usually see an uptick in reported mental illness. These include seasonal affective disorder (SAD), depression, and suicide, reflected in the types of patient calls received through nurse triage. Because these mental health cases demonstrate similar symptoms, it’s important that telehealth triage nurses have the tools to properly address each.
Although cases of seasonal affective disorder are known to happen in warmer months, most tend to manifest and peak during winter. Symptoms can range from mild—increased appetite, weight gain, low energy, and oversleeping—to more severe, like feelings of hopelessness and worthlessness, problems sleeping, and thoughts of suicide, reportsNIH.
Recommendations: In milder cases, being active and getting more sunlight (at least ten minutes in the morning and ten minutes in the afternoon) may be all that’s needed to improve a person’s mood, but severe symptoms warrant guidance by the appropriate mental health professional. Nurse triage protocols provide nurses with the right questions to glean information from patient callers and guide them to the appropriate care.
According to NIH, roughly 7.8 percent of US adults ages 18 and above experienced at least one major depressive episode in 2019. Unsurprisingly, depression rates were exacerbated at the start of the COVID-19 pandemic—nearly three-fold, notes Vox—leading up to our current days of “pandemic fatigue.”
Recommendations: Triage nurses recognize that there will be times that require them to act as emotional counselors before they’re able to ask patients about their symptoms. Start by training nurses on the 10 Critical Steps to Taking a Triage Call that include methods for coaxing callers into the proper states of mind to obtain the information they need.
Perhaps surprisingly, overall suicide rates reportedly dropped over the last couple of years. It’s worth noting that these statistics do not take into consideration unintentional drug overdoses, or the disproportionate suicide rates based on race and ethnicity. Furthermore, this shouldn’t diminish the fact that suicide remains one of the leading causes of death in younger adults, both in the 15-24 and 24-35 age brackets.
Recommendations: Telehealth triage nurses can assist callers who are contemplating suicide by establishing connections with them, as this serves as the best means of de-escalation. Pulling again from the 10 Critical Steps, nurses offer sympathetic, non-judgmental assistance, acting as a positive force for these callers in order to understand what they’re experiencing.
It’s important to note that any caller who says they’re contemplating suicide is still actively seeking help.
A telehealth triage nurse received a call from a retired firefighter who stated that they were planning to end their life. By acknowledging and listening to the patient, the nurse learned they were a cancer survivor, had recently been diagnosed with metastasis, and were given three months to live.
The nurse’s solution was to keep the patient calm and talking while simultaneously alerting their manager on duty, who contacted local police to perform a safety check on the patient. Thankfully, that patient was found in their car and transported to a hospital for care.
While professional healthcare providers are necessary when it comes to severe mental illness, telehealth triage nurses still can offer simple solutions to patients with milder symptoms to help them improve their mood, boost their energy levels, and sharpen their mental focus. These can include exercising, improved diet, and reduction or elimination of alcohol.
Ravi K. Raheja, MD is the CTO and Medical Director of the TriageLogic Group. Founded in 2007, TriageLogic is a URAC accredited, physician-led provider of high-quality telehealth services, remote patient monitoring, nurse triage, triage education, and software for telephone medicine. Their comprehensive solutions include integrated mobile access and two-way video capability. The TriageLogic group serves over 9,000 physicians and covers over 25 million lives nationwide. Contact them today to find out more.