Purdue alumna’s Operation Happy Nurse aims to improve mental health of nurses during and after COVID-19 Pandemic

By Tim Brouk, tbrouk@purdue.edu

Shannon McPeek

Shannon McPeekPhoto provided

The mental trauma experienced by nurses during the COVID-19 pandemic has been immense. For more than a year, nurses have been the frontline workers for millions of patients battling the deadly coronavirus.

Shannon McPeek (BS nursing ’16) is a neonatal ICU nurse based in San Diego, and she is the founder of Operation Happy Nurse, an online non-profit organization dedicated to helping nurses improve their mental health. Her website offers tips on mental health improvement in the form of yoga, fitness, nutrition, weekly recipes, podcasts, playlists and a “theraspace” blog written by a clinical social worker dedicated to helping nurses develop their self-care skills. Topics include managing and coping with panic attacks, how to find an in-person therapist, and setting boundaries between work and personal lives.

While Operation Happy Nurse launched in December 2020, McPeek started working on it in 2018. It only took her two years in the field to realize there was a need for mental health resources, during a pandemic or not. Nurses are taught to be stoic, but internalizing issues cannot benefit themselves or their work. McPeek used her own experiences as inspiration for Operation Happy Nurse.

“Before I started my career, I had been to one funeral in my life. Then all of a sudden, I was going to funerals for infants who never really got a chance to live,” said McPeek, who began her nursing career in the Washington, D.C., area before moving to California. “It became extremely tough for me to cope with. I went through a pretty dark period where I became extremely OCD because I didn’t want to make any mistakes at work. … It just spiraled into this high anxiety that I was coping with but not showing other people.”

Then, McPeek learned she was not alone. A survey she sent to 102 fellow nurses further reinforced the need for a place nurses can go for mental help. Many nurses she talked to had similar mental health issues and were suffering in silence, many for much of their careers. The COVID-19 pandemic only accelerated the overall need for her organization’s online resources. 

“We’re expected to care for other people but weren’t caring for ourselves,” McPeek explained. “We knew post-COVID that there would be a lot of mental health stuff going on for the healthcare community, and we needed to be there as a helping hand.”

Awareness of the mental health and well-being of nurses could help bolster the ranks of the nursing corps. According to a May 2021 study by the nursing industry website Vivian, 43% of nurses surveyed said they are considering leaving the healthcare profession. Initiatives like Operation Happy Nurse could encourage nurses to stay in their profession.

“There’s been a problem for a while, and now there is a massive push to help the mental health of the nursing community,” McPeek said. “The main thing that’s helping people is the sense of community, knowing that there’s other people around you that understand what you’re going through is such a huge help.”