Student voice: self-care
‘You can’t pour from an empty cup,’ says Deirbhile Murphy, as she explains why it’s important to look after yourself.
I started midwifery training at 18 with a fire in my belly and a passion for women-centred care, feminism and informed choice. Student midwives generally start their training full of enthusiasm and excitement. So, what happens? Why do a fifth of these passionate student midwives step away from the course? (Power and Grzelak, 2016).
I think it’s fair to say that being a student midwife is hard. Juggling academic work, clinical practice, financial pressures, relationships with mentors and family life is less than easy, and the truth is some students are burning out before they’ve even qualified.
Healthcare professionals experience clinical depression at twice the rate of the general public (Lampert, 2016). The results of the WHELM study are highly concerning – 83% of midwives are experiencing personal burnout and over a third of participants scored in the moderate/severe/extreme range for stress, anxiety and depression. Honestly, this doesn’t surprise me, but it does scare me. During my second year, I became very unwell with depression, intrusive thoughts, paranoia, dissociation and suicidal behaviour. Life felt hopeless to the point of being almost lost forever. This time last year, I would have been terrified to admit this, but I’m now proud of the person I’ve fought to become and I passionately believe that we need to look after each other and ourselves in order to prevent this happening to another student midwife.
Self-care is vital. Personally, I remember feeling bitterly disappointed when aromatherapy, a bubble bath and a face mask didn’t cure me from my crippling depression. This ‘faux self care’ doesn’t actually work – and when you are exhausted and overwhelmed, self-care can become just another item on the to-do list. Self-care is internal hard work – recognising we have limits, setting ourselves boundaries, learning when to say ‘no’ and sometimes putting ourselves first.
I have a bit of a problem with the word ‘resilience’ – I think that sometimes student midwives are expected to just ‘get on with it’ and if they’re struggling, it’s a problem with their resilience factors and not the system as a whole. However, Hunter and Warren (2014) suggest that true resilience is facilitated by specific coping mechanisms; being able to access support, becoming self-aware and the development of a strong professional identify.
Self-care and becoming a resilient individual is the ability to take a step back, refocus, and ask for help and support. Without doing so, you simply can’t function as an effective human being – I learned this the hard way! This year has thrown up many challenges, both professionally and personally. So, what have I learned? That asking for and accepting help is not a sign of weakness, but rather an absolute necessity. I’ve learned that looking after yourself is vital. It’s true when they say ‘you can’t pour from an empty cup’. I’ve learned that students need to stick together and support each other. I passionately believe that supporting and praising each other is the key to success and I am so unbelievably lucky to have been supported by the most wonderful group of student midwives during a very dark time. Student midwives and midwives are the fiercest, strongest, most supportive group of people I have ever had the luck to be part of. I do believe that if students are supported and taught how to look after themselves from the very beginning, more student midwives would qualify with that fire in their belly still burning.
Deirbhile Murphy is a third-year student midwife at Queen’s University Belfast
Hunter B, Warren L. (2014) Midwives’ experiences of workplace resilience. Midwifery 30(8): 926-34.
Lampert L. (2016) Depression in nurses: the unspoken epidemic. Minority Nurse 26(1): 14-9.
Power A, Grzelak L. (2016) University midwifery societies: support for student midwives, by student midwives. The British Journal of Midwifery 24(11): 788-9.